What Happens to a Dream Deferred? The Issue of Mass Incarceration and Voted Disenfranchisement within the United States

By Justin McMahan ‘21

The time was 8:45 on a Saturday night. I was walking back home with my two friends after spending the entire day on the court. We were three blocks from home, and had already walked around the park as Mom always reminded me to do.

“I don’t want you getting in any trouble, you hear me?”, that was her favorite saying. I knew it was for good reason; after all, African American men are incarcerated at rates six times that of white Americans. She feared that with all the recent news, she didn’t want her only son to be just another name on CNN.  But she knew the problem didn’t stop there; there were many more black men serving time in jail than being shot by the police, like her uncle.

“He was caught stealing a fridge. Now I know he was only trying to feed his family, but it still isn’t right to steal.” That was another one of her favorite quotes. She was always telling me to follow the rules, because she had read up on the stats. She knew one in every three black men are imprisoned at some time during their lives. And she believed it, because her father was arrested way back in the summer of 1965. He was in Chicago, with a gun over his shoulder and marching in the streets for the Black Panthers. But the cops weren’t having it: “even if it was for self defense,” she said, “they couldn't take any black people with guns”.. So he was locked up.

“Your father can’t vote, and you know that.” That was the sad truth, because he had been locked up for having a gram on him. Nothing more, nothing less, just a gram. But it was the second time Dad had gotten caught, so he was locked up. The state we live in participates in the disenfranchisement of former convicts because not every state restores voting rights. So, when Dad gets out he can’t vote in local elections, or state elections, or national elections. Well, not until he files a petition with the state government to restore his voting rights. It didn’t seem fair but that was just how it was.

The results of such disenfranchisement are that just over 6 million Americans cannot vote. Of those, more than 50% have already served their sentences and roughly 36% are African American. Imagine if those men and women could vote. Imagine if over 2 million African Americans could vote in the upcoming election, or any election before that. Imagine if all those individuals could vote in their state and local elections, the face of every legislative body would be changed. But all I could do was imagine. After all, only 16 states and D.C. allow ex-offenders to vote without having to serve parole or probation.

However, the issue isn’t just that ex-offenders are not always allowed to vote, often those that are able to vote are not informed of their rights. In New York and Connecticut, over 50 percent of felons were unaware of their voting rights. So, even in states where ex-offenders have their rights reintroduced, there is a lack of knowledge and information spread among such populations. However, in some states, such as Massachusetts, there are bills that hopes to start to solve that issue. H.3558 would require that upon release from prison, individuals would be informed of their rights to vote within the state. After all, what is a democracy if its citizens don’t even know that they can vote.

We turned the corner on to my block, and were 250 feet from my house, when the sirens blared. None of us had noticed the squad car tailing us. My mind froze. What would Mom tell me to do? I yelled at my friends, “Get on the ground, man! Don’t move! We can get out of this alive.”

I was motionless.

Ten minutes later I was in the back of the squad car, my two friends with looks of fear and defeat on their faces. All I could think about was the Frederick Douglass quote my Dad told me the last time I was able to call him:

"A man's rights rest in three boxes. The ballot box, jury box and the cartridge box. Let no man be kept from the ballot box because of his color. Let no woman be kept from the ballot box because of her sex."

I woke up in a cold sweat, and checked my phone. It was only a bad dream. I looked at the absentee ballot on my desk that I had filled out the night before. Both my parents had texted me to remind me to mail it in. After breakfast I ran to the mail center and sent it. Never before had I been happier to exercise my rights.