Colie Levar Long was just 18 years old when he committed one of the most “horrendous” crimes. At an age when many are preparing to start their lives, Long was starting a life sentence for the murder of a 14-year-old boy. He grew up in Washington, D.C., when many residents were in “survival mode,” he said, because of the violence surrounding the war on drugs and gang activities.

He spent the years after his 1998 conviction transferring between federal prisons, serving a particularly long spell in solitary confinement in an Indiana facility. Alone with his thoughts, Long realized that he did not want to die in prison — he wanted to right the wrongs done to his community.

When the D.C. Council passed legislation in 2020 securing voting rights for incarcerated people, Long hopped at the opportunity to register to vote. He had seen how differently prisons operated, especially when it came to the reliability of mail: Important resources like absentee ballots sometimes arrived on time and sometimes didn’t.

When D.C. extended voting rights to felons, the nation's capital joined Maine, Puerto Rico, and Vermont as the only places in the country without the restriction.

“The mindset is, if you committed a felony, then you should lose your right to vote. But me personally, I’m not the same 17- or 18-year-old who did some horrendous acts of the past that are the context of the life circumstances that we were living at that time,” Long said. “Despite my conviction, I’m still a citizen and [being able to vote] restores your sense of relevancy.”

States use a variety of methods to restrict the ability to vote as a consequence of breaking the law. While a few states have extended voting to incarcerated felons, access to absentee ballots and polling stations are still hurdles for those living behind bars. Even for people who haven’t been convicted, pretrial incarceration prevents many from participating in elections. Often, incarcerated people don’t even know they are eligible to vote.

When Durrel Douglas began looking into voting access in jails several years ago, he was “enraged” by the lack of legislation and activism.

“No one is ringing the alarm about this,” said Douglas, a former Texas correctional officer who now serves as a national jail-based voter organizer with The Sentencing Project. “We talk about disenfranchisement all the time. We do voter registration drives all the time. Yet, here are people who — when you take a spoonful of that audience — are the people who are always stepped over, always ignored.”

In recent years, certain jurisdictions have increased access to voting in county jails, conducting voter registration drives, providing absentee ballots, and setting up polling stations for incarcerated individuals. In Houston, the Harris County Jail opened a polling station for its residents last year. At the Genesee County jail in Flint, Michigan, a designated ambassador shuttles absentee ballots to and from the facility for inmates who are awaiting or are in the midst of a trial.

Formerly and currently incarcerated people have established grassroots organizations such as Nation Outside and More Than Our Crimes in recent years to advocate for those behind bars. They have teamed up with nonprofit organizations such as The Sentencing Project to campaign for local jails to host polling stations inside correctional facilities and provide residents with information on registering and casting an absentee ballot in their home state.

Anthony Petty, an outreach coordinator with More Than Our Crimes, noted that issues and candidates on the ballot have an impact on those in the nation’s jails and prisons.

“It should be eloquently stated that even though you may be incarcerated, your family, your friends are going to be affected by who you put in those seats for Congress and senators — that's who's gonna give them some of the funding that they need,” said Petty, who was released in 2020 after spending 30 years in prison. “That's who's going to push bills that your family, your friends may need.”

Advocates said the issue is particularly poignant for Black detainees, whose ancestors might have fought and died to have a voice in democracy.

“The system works perfectly, it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing by locking up Black and brown bodies,” said Long, who was released from prison in July and is a program associate with Georgetown University’s Prison and Justice Initiative program. “These systems that are descendants of slave owners and plantation owners, they have their own checks and balances on how to curb the flow of progression. They don’t like that.”

Accessing Ballots Behind Bars

Every election cycle, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people across the country miss their opportunity to vote, according to The Sentencing Project. Among them are people who are held in local jails for months, and sometimes years, awaiting trial either because they cannot afford bail or a bond for release, or because a judge declined to set a bail amount because of the nature of the crime.

People being held pretrial have a constitutional right to vote while in jail, said Tony Gant, the director of policy and programs operations with Nation Outside, and their access to the ballot shouldn’t be cut off because of their inability to afford bail.

Nation Outside, a Michigan-based grassroots organization of former and current justice-impacted individuals, seeks policy and practice reform for people with criminal records. The organization has coordinated with officials in Genesee County to make sure that detainees were registered to vote. The county clerk deputized an N.O. regional coordinator to take sealed ballots between the jail and the clerk’s office, ensuring the detainees were able to cast absentee ballots.

“The more our registration work went on, [Genesee Sheriff Chris Swanson] saw the value in it by just engaging folks and talking to people about their right to vote and how it's important to be civically engaged,” said Gant.

Nearly 80 pretrial detainees cast absentee ballots in the August primary election for Flint City Council. Mayoral candidates were given the opportunity to campaign in person to their constituents in the county jail.

“It's hard to shift the systems we need to shift without our people actively engaged in the voting process. And so for us, getting our justice-impacted people engaged in voting and understanding why we're voting is imperative to be able to do all the other stuff we know that needs to be done in the state of Michigan,” said Gant.

The movement is slowly expanding to other parts of the country.

Jails in Harris County, Texas, have hosted polling stations inside their facilities for four national and local election cycles. On average, the three county jails can have a population of up to 10,000 incarcerated persons per month, said Maj. Phillip Bosquez with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office during The Sentencing Project’s webinar series in August.

“It's doable in a system as big as we are. If it's doable, you have to have a great election administration that wants to bring it. … We brought it to this system, and it's a great partnership,” Bosquez said.

During the last presidential election, well over 2,000 incarcerated persons awaiting trial or serving time for a misdemeanor conviction in Cook County, Illinois, jails voted at polling stations that were set up behind bars.

In Washington, D.C., the movement to expand civic participation to detainees has gone beyond voting. Last year, Joel Caston became the first incarcerated person to run for a political position from prison, winning a seat on his Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which serves as a voice for constituents on city policy.

Speaking on a webinar hosted by The Sentencing Project, Caston said that giving people behind bars an opportunity to vote “is in the best interest” for federal and state lawmakers who could win over more supporters.

Caston, who was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 18 for a 1994 murder, said he is the epitome of why the stereotypes of those who are incarcerated should be debunked. After 26 years in prison, Caston was released from prison in November 2021 and placed on parole.

“I'm not the type of guy who's supposed to be talking about these things. But if you have someone who was formerly justice-involved, who committed one of the worst crimes on the books as a teenager, has been reformed and who's now actively participating and making my community a better place, that's in the best interest of the state,” Caston said. “So the people who are behind bars, albeit why they are there, should be given the opportunity to be able to right their wrongs through the pathways of civic engagement.”

Christina Carrega is a criminal justice reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @ChrisCarrega