ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tens of millions of Americans who are eligible to vote are not registered. So before every big election there's a flurry of activity to sign them up. NPR's Pam Fessler recently traveled to South Carolina and met one woman who is passionate about registering voters in an unusual place.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Attention in the area, attention in the area. I have the voter registration. They'll be going to Delta and Echo. Delta and Echo. You copy, control?

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: This is the Sumter-Lee Regional Detention Center in Sumter, South Carolina, basically the county jail, where inmates serve time for everything from murder to driving without a license. To local physician Brenda Williams, though, they're all potential voters.

DR. BRENDA WILLIAMS: Let's go to Delta first.

FESSLER: That's Delta pod, a large gym-like room with metal bunk beds, tables, toilets and about 50 male inmates milling about. Many are tattooed and grim looking. A few shoot hoops on an outside court.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All right. Feet got to be on the red line for a minute.

FESSLER: A female guard tells the men to get behind a red line that borders the room. They comply - slowly. Brenda Williams is only four feet eleven inches tall, but in her own way she's pretty imposing. She knows how to take charge of a room.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) I know it was blood, I know it was blood, I know it was blood, for me...

FESSLER: It's quite a sight. This small compact woman in her white doctor's jacket belting it out - part-physician, part-preacher. Now she has the inmates' attention.

WILLIAMS: Good afternoon, fellas. Good afternoon. You know, I came last weekend and registered many of you, many of whom are decided that you're going to do right.

FESSLER: And today, she says, she has something to give them.

WILLIAMS: When you hear your name, please come forth and get your voter registration card.

FESSLER: Williams says registering is one of the few positive things some of these men have ever done. It's behavior she wants to encourage.

WILLIAMS: Will Jonathan (unintelligible) please come forth. Y'all give him a hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FESSLER: It's a little like a graduation, only the graduates wear blue jail outfits and orange rubber shoes. The men come up one at a time to get their cards and a big hug.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Next?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Calvin Anderson.

WILLIAMS: Mr. Calvin Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: Congratulations, sir. You are a registered voter in the United States of America.

FESSLER: Although as in most states, South Carolina doesn't allow its inmates to vote unless they're awaiting trial. Felons can only vote if they're no longer on probation or parole. Some states don't allow felons to vote at all. People think they've lost that right. But Williams believes it's important that those behind bars have something to strive for, that they feel they have a stake in the community when they get out, so they don't return.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Good morning, Felsey(ph) Medical Clinic. How may I help you?

FESSLER: Williams has run a medical clinic in this community for 30 years with her husband, Joe Williams, who's also a physician. The Williamses remember all too well the civil rights battles of the 1960s, so they always ask their patients, who are often poor and black, if they're registered to vote.

AMANDA WOLF: The patients I've called, and letting them know bring their medications and all that.

FESSLER: Among the clinic's workers is 26-year-old Amanda Wolf, who until recently was homeless. She says she's trying to pull her life together. Wolf spent six months in the Sumter-Lee Regional Detention Center for failure to make child support payments. She says a bright spot was getting registered to vote.

WOLF: It's a privilege, you know, to be able to have the entire pod clap for you as you go up and get your voter's registration card. You know, it's a little bit of excitement when you feel like, you know, all hope is lost.

WILLIAMS: Next.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Michael Browder .

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News.

WILLIAMS: Mr. Browder, congratulations. You're now a voting citizen in the United States of America.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.