D.C.'s incarcerated residents can vote, but sometimes it's easier said than done
The first time Vance Contee ever voted in his life, he did it from the confines of a federal prison in central Florida.
The D.C. native, now 45, cast his ballot for the 2020 presidential election from USP Coleman, one of the prisons that he has called home since he was incarcerated in the late 1990s on a 30-to-life sentence for killing a Korean store owner.
"I came to prison when I was a juvenile, so it gave me a sense of responsibility not just for myself but as a community," he says during a phone call from FCI Hazelton, the West Virginia prison where he has since been moved. "My vote could possibly help others and deter others from following my track and make the world possibly a better place."
Contee was able to cast a vote because of a law passed by the D.C. Council two years ago extending the franchise to D.C. residents serving time for felony offenses, a move that put the city alongside only Maine and Vermont. Proponents say that expanding the vote inside prison walls gives those residents a newfound connection to the community many will eventually return to.
This year, though, Contee has yet to receive a ballot — even though D.C. sent one to every registered voter. And with time running out before the June 21 primary, he doesn't know if he'll be able to exercise his right to vote a second time. "I feel like they're trying make people feel reluctant and perpetuate the feeling that my vote won't matter anyway," he says.
The very advocates who cheered the move to let D.C. prisoners vote say that Contee isn't alone, and that for all its good intentions, the new law has suffered implementation hiccups — some of which are in the city's control, but many far beyond it. And they're engaging in a civic education campaign with a population of D.C. voters who can be hard to access, are often moved, and don't have ready access to information about the candidates they are voting for.
The challenge is most intense for the 2,187 D.C. residents who are incarcerated at dozens of federal prisons across the country, a reality unique to D.C. because it has no state prison system of its own. (Many residents at the D.C. Jail, who are largely held pending trial or on misdemeanor sentences, were already able to vote before the new law was passed in 2020.)
"The main barrier for individuals in the federal system stems from the fact that they're in the federal system," says Stacey Litner of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. "D.C. is relying on the cooperation of the federal government to perform a local function."
In an email, Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Emery Nelson says the agency has worked to make D.C. residents aware of their newfound right to vote.
"D.C. inmates in BOP facilities have been notified via the inmate email system that as a resident of D.C., they have the option of registering and voting in elections," he writes. "BOP staff is providing the registration materials furnished by the D.C. Board of Elections to inmates who request it. Registration materials are self-addressed with postage so once the inmate has the materials, he/she can complete the forms and mail them on their own."
Nelson also says that reentry staff at every federal facility provide information on voting. In 2020, 562 D.C. residents in federal prisons registered to vote, and 264 actually cast ballots.
To keep pushing forward on the law giving incarcerated D.C. residents the right to vote, the D.C. Board of Elections recently hired Scott Sussman, who worked at the BOP for 26 years and was the agency's point person for implementing the D.C. law before he retired. Sussman says he regularly speaks with the BOP, but concedes that a fundamental problem is that even he doesn't know where all the D.C. residents are being held.
"One challenge is not knowing exactly which resident is at exactly which facility until we've made actual contact with them. [The BOP is] bound by privacy regulations and they cannot provide us a complete list of every inmate of every D.C. resident," he says.
Pam Bailey, the co-founder of More Than Our Crimes, a publication that includes writing by incarcerated people and advocates on behalf of D.C. residents in federal prison, agrees that on paper the BOP tries to facilitate voter registration and voting for D.C. residents at their facilities. But she says that information can still be hard to come by; if a prison is locked down, she notes, it's harder for inmates to touch base with proper staff. And each prison can be different.
"It's better this time, but it varies so much from prison to prison," she says. "Each prison operates like its own fiefdom."
It's also beyond D.C.'s control when residents are moved from one prison to another, which advocates say happens often. And when it does, that resident has to update their voter registration with the new mailing address of the prison where they were moved.
Still, Bailey says having Sussman onboard at the elections board has been an important step; she calls him a "godsend."
There have been other challenges, too. Initially D.C.'s voter registration form did not include any place for residents to list their inmate number, a critical piece of information for communication to happen in federal prisons. (The form has since been updated.) And while residents are asked to list their last known D.C. address to help determine what ward they'd vote in, advocates say many don't remember — or never had a home to speak of.
And then there's the broader issue of voter information. The city's official voter guide includes only basic information on how to register and how to vote, but no profiles of the candidates or summaries of the issues at play.
"They don't know who these people are," says Bailey. "They've heard of the mayor, but they actually haven't heard of all the people opposing Mayor Bowser. And when it comes to things like the councilmember at-large, you know, it's a pretty crowded field."
To address that, the D.C. chapter of the League of Women Voters runs a hotline that incarcerated residents can call for information on how to vote or who the candidates are. And Bailey says she compiled as much information on the candidates and relevant issues (criminal justice reform and affordable housing are of particular interest, she says) and sent it to incarcerated residents she's in contact with, using the email system the BOP allows inmates access to.
Most advocates say that they remain optimistic about getting more D.C. residents in federal prisons registered to vote, though they recognize that the city will always face challenges as long as residents remain in BOP facilities across the country. (D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has pushed for a small step: having BOP disclose the names and locations of all D.C. residents in federal prisons.) Still, Sussman says that D.C. is the "first jurisdiction to be aggressive with their engagement." And advocates say the issue is important enough to merit continued attention.
"Individuals who are incarcerated don't have their voices heard frequently, and so we've received many letters telling us how important this right is to them, how they're excited to participate in D.C.'s elections where they plan to return, and hopefully build a better community," Litner says.
That's what Contee plans as soon as he's released, likely as early as next year. Last year he was granted a sentence reduction under a D.C. law that allows people convicted of crimes before they turned 18 to request early release after they've served 15 years of their sentence.
"There's a lot of kids and adults that aren't getting themselves together. I want to be an example," he says. "This guy went in young and came out as an older person, he changed his life and stayed on the right path, he started making the decisions that count not just for myself but for others as well."
Is he looking forward to voting in person, just like anyone else? "Absolutely," he says.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.
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