New Yorks’ Coronavirus Response Failures Show Us, Again, Why Incarcerated People Should Be Able To Vote

The following is letter from James Melchiorre, a volunteer with AFJ:

Some of the greatest stress during the novel coronavirus pandemic has fallen on the nearly 40,000 incarcerated persons in the 52 state facilities under New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, as well as their family members who worry about unsanitary prisons, lack of soap, and common areas where social distancing is impossible.

As this situation has only worsened, with total inaction by our state’s leaders over the last 4 months, these affected New Yorkers naturally should have a process for redress and to hold people accountable. When citizens face a problem related to a government policy or facility, their first step is to contact their assembly member, or state senator, or governor. When they don’t “get through”, get a response, and only get sustained disdain or indifference, they hold power accountable by exercising their right to vote.

Imagine if our incarcerated family members, friends, and neighbors could vote in the next election, and how that reality might get the attention of the governor, state senators, and assembly members?

By executive order in 2018, Governor Cuomo restored voting rights to persons on parole and those who have completed their sentences, but incarcerated citizens in New York cannot vote. In fact, only Maine, Vermont, and Puerto Rico allow the incarcerated to cast a ballot.

This must change. Incarcerated people don’t lose their right to practice their religion; chapels are available inside prisons. They can request special diets consistent with their faith. The Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment also remains.

An estimated ninety percent of the incarcerated population will eventually return to their community. Wouldn’t we prefer that they rejoin us politically engaged and invested in community life? Granting incarcerated persons the right to vote also would likely increase voting among their family members, currently a group with lower than average participation.

The organization I volunteer with, Alliance of Families for Justice, lobbies lawmakers in the state of New York to grant voting rights to the incarcerated. We believe it’s time that elected officials should be responsive to and responsible for all of their constituents, including those preparing to re-enter our communities. Voting by the incarcerated would help to ensure that.

AFJ is powered by and for the families of incarcerated New Yorkers and allies across the state. www.afj-ny.org