The Incarcerated Should be Allowed to Vote

The Incarcerated Should Be Allowed to Vote

The Incarcerated Should Be Allowed to Vote

Susan Olsen

June 9, 2019


Soon after I started teaching at Maryland’s largest state prison, Eastern Correctional Institution (ECI) in 1987, I remember noticing a few voting booths.  My fellow educators and I were puzzled, almost miffed about it.  You mean they allowinmates to vote, we mused between ourselves.

            I never found out why the voting booths were there.  ECI is a medium/maximum security prison, and I have never heard of anyone serving time there who had not been convicted of a felony, so our inmates must have lost their voting rights. During the following sixteen years of teaching at ECI, I never saw voting booths again.  It never occurred to me until it became a national debate that perhaps voting should be made available to the incarcerated.

            My tenure as a correctional teacher was perhaps the most personal growth inspiring professional experience of my life.  The most important lesson I learned was about the transformational power of education. Education makes a difference in our inmates’ lives and, in turn, in ours.  Most people seem to forget that incarcerated men and women are eventually released, even with a life sentence.  How we treat people when they are incarcerated determines how they will be able to adjust to society upon their release.  Will they become productive citizens, or will they reoffend?  To some extent, we influence those decisions.

            For the first nine years I taught at ECI, I was the GED English/reading teacher in the school on the east side of the prison.  In addition to other parts of the curriculum, I was responsible for preparing the men for the GED writing skills test for which they had to write a short essay. Of course, we had no idea what the topic would be, so we explored every possible topic that might be on the test. We discussed and wrote about handgun control, smoking restrictions, the most influential person in each of their lives (it was usually their mothers) — the possibilities were endless.  As we argued, discussed, and wrote, I received the immense reward of watching these men develop their critical thinking skills. Sometimes they would look around and say to me, “What am I doing here?  This is not what I want for my life.”  Men who had been told all their lives that they were stupid found out that they were a lot smarter than they had ever imagined.

            One of my favorite topics that we covered was the environment.  We explored every facet of the dangers to our planet I could think of. After one day of intensive discussion, an inmate in his early sixties approached me.  This hardened criminal had tears in his eyes.  He was sad and angry at the same time.  “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me about this?” he asked.  “I wish I could have done something.”  I had no words for him.  This man was not the only inmate who expressed this type of regret. 

            My students, in addition to many of the men with whom they lived on the tiers, became avid news-watchers, maybe for the first time in their lives.  Some rushed to tell me things they had seen on the news the night before as soon as they walked into class.  They became savvy in local, national and world events and developed strong opinions on how we should be governed.

            While I was teaching in the prison, I kept the lines of communication open with my fellow teachers in the public-school system.  At the time, Wicomico County had one of the highest dropout rates in Maryland, so the teachers at Wicomico Senior High School developed a task force to explore the problem and find some solutions.  Since I was teaching high school drop-outs, I was asked to contribute. When I asked my students why they had dropped out of school, they gave us helpful new insights.  What impressed me the most, however, was that several of my students told me how much they appreciated being asked to contribute.  They were thrilled to have an opportunity to give back, to help – to make a difference.

            During a required social work program, one of my students had to write to his victim and ask for her forgiveness.  She wrote back, and he allowed me to read her letter.  It was not an easy letter to read.  She gave him a piece of her mind.  However, this woman will never know how much she helped this inmate by responding to him.  He developed a human connection.  Learning how much suffering he had caused this woman helped him to turn his life around. Several years after his release, I ran into this now former inmate on a college campus where I was taking a graduate class.  He was working on his master’s degree. 

Sadly, this social work program was eliminated when the Clinton crime bill passed, and Americans decided we were going to lock up people and throw away the key.

When I now think about restoring voting rights to the incarcerated, my opinion has vastly changed from when I was a beginning prison teacher. I now wonder how many more inmates would have been inspired had they been allowed to participate in society this way?  How much might this connection to the rest of us provide a lifeline to the path of responsible citizenship?  The incarcerated get released back to our communities whether we like it or not. How prepared they are to assume the responsibilities of lawful participation in society is partly up to us. Perhaps we can start by allowing them to vote.