Wednesday, May 31, 2023

‘We’re in a moment’: Is it time to expand voting rights for incarcerated Pennsylvanians?

‘When I was told I could vote, it was an amazing feeling,’ Jessie Tate said. ‘It felt so good. They gave you an ‘I voted’ sticker, and I was walking around with that sticker on all day long’  

by DaniRae Renno, Pennsylvania Capital-Star,  May 28, 2023

After spending nine years behind bars on a felony charge, one thought was going through Jessie Tate’s mind: His life was over. 

“One of the things I didn’t have coming out of prison was hope,” Tate said at a panel regarding incarcerated voters rights on Tuesday. “With no way to participate in civil duties or get a job, prisoners end up going back to what they know.” 

Tate also thought that he couldn’t vote. For 18 years after his incarceration, he watched his neighbors, friends and family flock to the polls to exercise influence over the political landscape of their home. 

In 2012, he discovered through a grassroots campaign by the Obama campaign that he actually could. Tate proudly cast his ballot for the first time since his incarceration in the 2012 presidential election.

“When I was told I could vote, it was an amazing feeling,” Tate said. “It felt so good. They gave you an ‘I voted’ sticker, and I was walking around with that sticker on all day long.”  

Thousands of Pennsylvanians will spend Nov. 8 behind bars with no easy access to a ballot box. Thousands more will let the day pass by while falsely believing that they are disenfranchised, or stripped of the right to vote, just like Tate did. 

Voter access for incarcerated and previously incarcerated individuals is a topic that’s gained momentum over the years. 

Earlier this month, Reps. Rick Krajewski and Rep. Christopher Rabb, both Philadelphia Democrats, began seeking support for legislation that would require the Department of State to develop educational programming surrounding civic education and voting for people in prisons, encode prisoners’ right to absentee ballots and give felons the right to vote. 

In county and state institutions, voting access and education varies  

Incarcerated people who were convicted of any crime not considered a felony have the right to vote. But they, but incarcerated individuals don’t have access to voting machines because of strict security in county jails and state correctional institutions.

Nationally, two out of every three people in U.S. jails aren’t convicted yet and are being held awaiting trial, according to research by the Prison Policy Initiative, an organization that advocates for campaigns to improve the condition of incarcerated individuals. 

While the numbers fluctuate, a portion of “innocent until proven guilty” Americans are denied easy access to the polls.

The state Department of Corrections has detailed information on how incarcerated individuals can vote — but many prisoners don’t have internet access. 

“The DOC provides eligible inmates with the opportunity to vote via a mail-in ballot,” the agency’s spokesperson, Maria Bivens, told the Capital-Star. “Those ballots are received to the institutions as Business Transactional mail and are handled by the facility business office.” 

Theoretically, prisoners could vote in-person, but that would require a polling machine inside of an institution. In Pa.’s severely understaffed county jails, the logistics of obtaining enough prison guards on election day could prove near-impossible for an already taxed prison system. It’s also impossible because of voter precincts. 

“It’s not a horrible idea, it’s just not a practical idea. Everyone thinks of voting at national and state levels, not considering county and municipality levels,” Dauphin County Elections Director Jerry Feaser told the Capital-Star. “We don’t register inmates out of the prison address, therefore there could be multiple different ballot styles because they’re specific to a precinct.”

Dauphin County Prison sits in Swatara Township, 2nd precinct. Feaser said that in the latest election, he received mail-in ballots from York, Berks, Adams and Lancaster county. Providing ballot styles from different counties in one voting machine is simply not possible, Feaser said. 

According to a study published in 2021 by the PENNfranchise Project, an organization that works to train returning citizens on civic engagement, only 52 out of 25,000 people incarcerated in Pa. county jails requested a mail-in ballot in 2020. 

Rep. Rick Krajewski, D-Philadelphia, explains his proposal to expand voting rights for inmates at a panel with representatives from the PENNfranchise project and The Sentencing Project on Tuesday May, 23, 2023 (Capital-Star photo by DaniRae Renno).

Krajewski called the stat “embarrassing.” 

“That’s a fraction of a percent that’s using their right to vote,” he told the Capital-Star. “There’s very little coordination [between the state and DOC] on this.”Bivens said that the Corrections Department is currently collaborating with the Department of State to develop a video to play on the inmate channel that would occasionally remind incarcerated people about their voting rights. 

In September 2022, former Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order that created “Vote Registration Distribution Agencies,” of which the Corrections Department is now designated. 

Since the order, registration forms are now available at Parole Field Offices, Community Corrections Centers and are available to reentrants, according to Bivens. She also noted that the Department of State provided signage for facilities to advertise registration forms. 

“We as a department are doing our part to close the gap of 1.7 million unregistered voters and ensure our residents and reentrants know that they have the right to have their voices heard,” Bivens added. 

The County View

The larger problem is county jails. The DOC does not operate or have authority over them, and there is no uniform system within the jails to provide voting information, although by law they are required to provide voting opportunities to eligible voters. 

In Dauphin County, jail officials work to ensure mail-in voting information is provided early. It’s a policy they’ve had since 2020.

“Each year we provide them [inmates] with a memo and calendar stating when the last day to register to vote is, when the last day to apply for an absentee ballot is, and we provide them with all the necessary forms,” Feaser said. “We set earlier deadlines just to make sure that we get the bulk of them done in advance.” 

Feaser provided a letter and documents that were sent to inmates ahead of the May primaries to the Capital-Star. Included were a list of candidates, voter registration in English and Spanish, an absentee ballot application and national voter registration for inmates who reside in another state. The package also included comprehensive details on which inmates were eligible to vote and key dates throughout the election process. 

The final document informs prisoners that there is “personal delivery of items” between the jail and the elections officers to “reduce any chance of items being lost in the mail.” 

It takes a high level of cooperation between the jail and the board of elections. Either Feaser or his deputy coordinates with a prison official that’s appointed by the warden. Feaser called it “a solid chain of custody.” 

Official election mail is also prioritized by jail officials, since the actual absentee ballots go through the U.S. mail. The prison mail system understands that if mail has an official election mail insignia on it, it can be pushed through without the typical searches that other mail undergoes, Feaser said. 

However, Dauphin County is just one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. The PENNfranchise Project included in their study an analysis of the 46 county jails across the state, classifying their overall election policies as either “detailed,” “vague” or “none.” Dauphin was included in the “vague” category, as were 12 others. Only seven counties were “detailed.” 

Twenty-six counties had no written policy, although they still must, by law, provide voting information to inmates. 

Even when election paperwork is provided, it’s not always used. Feaser said that in the most recent elections, Dauphin County only got 20 ballots from the county jail, and while many ballots are diverted to separate counties, it’s still an underwhelming number. 

“Hope:” The motivating factor for inmates to vote

In institutions where there is education surrounding how to vote, why prisoners should vote is not often addressed. 

“You have to explain to individuals why their votes are so important,” Tate said. “People think their vote isn’t going to make a difference, but if 10,000 people are thinking like that, that’s 10,000 people not voting for these elected officials making laws that affect minorities.” 

According to research by the Sentencing Project, Black Americans comprise nearly half of all persons confined to prison in Pennsylvania. When prisoners vote, it makes candidates answer to a more diverse constituency, and not just legislative candidates, said Leigh Owens, the executive director of the PennFranchise Project, during a May 23 panel discussion at the state Capitol. 

“People don’t know that judges and district attorneys get voted in and out as well,” Owens said.

Tate echoed his sentiment, noting that during his time in prison he was upset to discover that individuals were serving a lesser sentence for what he considered more egregious crimes and that judges whom he believed were biased could be voted out. Tate also noted racial disparities in prison. 

Pennsylvania has a 8.5:1 ratio of Black to white prisoners, according to the Sentencing Project. In the state that’s ranked 13th nationally for mass incarceration, that adds up. 

“This goes back to prison gerrymandering, which disproportionately impacted Black and brown incarcerated people,” Krajewski said. “This could be a very powerful racial justice initiative.”

Voting can also help incarcerated individuals gain a sense of hope, which Tate said he had so little of stepping out of prison. 

“For me, voting kind of restores some powers,” Tate said. “When you realize that you can look at voting records in the House or Senate and if you see something that gives minorities a disadvantage, we could vote them out.” 

Inmates with a felony conviction cannot vote while incarcerated. The moment they leave prison, their voting rights come back, but that’s often unclear.

 In Tate’s experience the option to register to vote was lost somewhere in paperwork and list of things to do. While he acknowledges that he can be blamed for not inquiring about his voting rights, Tate said starting the conversation while inmates are still incarcerated is vital.

“When individuals get out of jail, they have a laundry list of things to do, especially on parole,” Tate said. “If you start in prison and talk about voting rights, you’ll get individuals that come out with a different mindset and start voting.” 

Included in Krajewski’s legislation  is a proposal to codify the right of incarcerated individuals to vote by absentee ballot. 

“The more we can point to the law and the foundation of our sentencing code to say this is a right that every incarcerated person deserves to have, the easier it is to defend it,” Krajewski said. “Then we have some defense in court when something like this will inevitably be challenged.” 

The case for a constituency that includes felons

The second part of the proposal would allow all incarcerated individuals, including felons, to vote. 

“I believe we’re in a moment in [Pennsylvania]. and in the country where we’re realizing that retribution is not always the best path to justice,” Krajewski said. “It’s compassionate rehabilitation, and what it means to enfranchise people and give them the ability to vote is part of that conversation.” 

Krajewski said allowing felons to vote in the commonwealth would be a “home run,” but that he’s willing to engage in conversation on his plan. 

“I want to work to make this a priority, whether it’s this session or the next,” he said. “It’s going to take some work to make this happen.” 

There are few examples nationally of laws allowing all incarcerated individuals to vote — 

Currently, only Maine, Vermont, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico allow felons to vote while they are serving their sentences. Since most convicted felons are housed in state correctional facilities, the process would be similar to what the Pennsylvania Corrections Department currently has in place for inmates. 

Passing the bill will take hard work and time, with a slim majority favoring the Democrats in the house and many Republicans opposed.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson of state House Republicans, said that inmate voting access was “nowhere near” the top of a list of identified problems noted in a House Republican review of Pa.’s election laws. 

“Pennsylvania’s House Democrats, who have also proposed paying incarcerated Pennsylvanians $21 per hour for prison work, continue to push an extreme agenda focused more on helping people incarcerated for breaking Pennsylvania’s laws than on people who want to have safe communities free of crime and violence” Gottesman said. “This House Democrat thought experiment is another extreme proposal that does nothing to help solve real problems being faced by law-abiding Pennsylvanians.” 

If the bill makes it through the House, it would face a hurdle in the Republican-controlled state . Senate, but Krajewski is both hopeful and said he remains open to conversation. 

This article originally appeared at, on May 30th, 2023

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Monday, May 1, 2023

Building Class Conscious Cooperatives

Written by Kali Akuno Executive Director, Cooperation Jackson

A message in honor of Cooperation Jackson’s 9th anniversary and International Workers Day 2023

This essay is dedicated to two titans of the Proletarian Revolution and the Black Liberation Movement: Saladin Muhammad and Tim Schermerhorn. 

Monday, May 1, 2023 will mark the 9th anniversary of Cooperation Jackson. We launched on International Workers Day very intentionally. From the jump, we wanted to send a clear message to the workers of Jackson and the world, that the vehicle we were aiming to build was part and parcel of the international working class movement, the movement to construct a socialist future. And while this was a symbolic gesture to begin with at best, particularly given our positioning and relevance at the time, we thought it was important to declare in order to firmly align our intentions with our practice and objectives. 

Now, to be clear, our practical and immediate intentions were to stimulate and motivate working class forces in Jackson to support our initiative and to see it as a means to strengthen the position of the proletariat on the local level to enable us to elevate the class struggle on more favorable terms for the toilers. Our more strategic focus however, was, and remains, forging unity between the organized sectors of the working class, particularly between the cooperative and trade union sectors of the movement. From our inception we’ve been focused on trying to make a contribution to the organization the working class in its totality, meaning all those who toil or have to sell their labor in order to make a living, be they unionized or not, or in some organized formation like a workers center or a cooperative - this is why we called for and helped launch the People’s Strike, which was a broad mobilization advancing the need for a general strike to meet our fundamental human rights during the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020 and 2021. 

However, we chose to start our class based organizing initiatives by trying to forge an alliance between the trade union and solidarity economy movements because when combined they possess the positionality, resources, skills, and tactical means to launch a substantive campaign to democratize the economy. As a united force, they could employ their combined strength to transition countless businesses, locally, regionally, and nationally, into worker owned and controlled social production units. They could also use this strength to occupy and buy-out businesses reluctant to engage in a democratic transition, like New Era Windows Cooperative did in Chicago, Illinois in 2012. Or they could directly seize those that are resistant or outright hostile to a democratic transition like numerous workers did in Argentina in the early 2000’s. 

In order for a democratic transition of the economy to happen, we have to build class conscious organizations that are ready and willing to take on this challenge and all that comes with it. And to be clear, we are talking about moving beyond developing organizations that are positioned in the class, that is entities that exist to press for benefits within the capitalist system. Rather, we are talking about entities that are aware of their comprehensive social positioning as the producers of the vast majority of the surplus value underscoring bourgeois society as a reflection of their universal interests and advocate for the construction of another social system that will end capitalist exploitation and expropriation of the social surpluses produced by the working class. We are talking about organizations wherein its members have a consciousness of themselves as a “class for itself”.

We are clear that a democratic transition will require far more than declarations or symbolic gestures, such as the one we committed in 2014 when we started. Our own experiences over the past 9 years trying to build worker cooperatives, develop a vibrant community land trust, and other institutions and tools of the solidarity economy in Jackson has been more than a notion. Our work has been balanced by a series of triumphs and tragedies, successes and failures. But, throughout it all, we have maintained that we are not seeking to build cooperatives for cooperatives sake, we are trying to build institutions that will help us transition out of capitalism.  We are not going to coop our way out of these exploitative social relations. It is going to take a lot more than just cooperatives or self-directed social production units to get us where we need to go. But, to the extent that we have to start this journey by building class conscious organizations, we want to share some principles drawn from our experience about what we think it takes to build class struggle oriented cooperatives. Here are some Basic Principles of Class Struggle or Class Conscious Cooperatives that we would like to share that we think that cooperatives not just trying cooperatives for cooperatives sake must be committed to: 

  1. Serving as instruments of working class self-organization, with the aim and objective of enabling the working class to own and control the fundamental means of production to enable the democratization of society and the regeneration of the earth’s ecosystems through coordinated planning to produce the use-value oriented instruments and necessities needed to improve the overall quality of life of the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants within the ecological and material limitations of our precious planet. 

  2. Engaging in active solidarity with other workers, worker formations, and workers self-organizing campaigns and initiatives towards the objectives of helping them become self-directed, democratic institutions committed to the socialization of production, the democratization of society, and the regeneration of the earth’s ecosystems. 

  3. Demonstrating the principle of non-competition with and between other workers. We need to be clear that when and where we compete has to be directed against capital and its representatives to deliberately break capital’s domination over the means of production and the relations of production. On a practical level, this type of competition must entail supporting the organizing initiatives of the workers in the firms we are struggling against to help them unionize and take over the enterprise and turn it into a worker cooperative. These worker cooperatives must be willing and able to become social production enterprises willing to engage in participatory planning processes to manage the economy. 

  4. Encouraging all existing unions, worker centers, and other worker formations to organize themselves to seize (socialize) the means of production by converting their workplaces into cooperatives or commons or social based sites of production, and support them with training materials, resource mobilization, mutual aid, consultative advice, and strategic deployment when and where necessary. 

  5. Organizing the un and under organized sectors of the working class, who constitute the vast majority of the class, particularly in the US, into vehicles of self organization that best fit their local conditions and enable them to engage successfully in the class struggle at every progressive stage of our development and scale of deployment. 

Oriented in this fashion, cooperatives can do more than just maximize returns for their members, which is the standard orientation of cooperatives following the entrepreneurial school of thought that dominates how most cooperatives are trained, developed, and positioned. The adoption of this orientation we argue, wil help bridge, and eventually, eliminate the historic divide between the cooperative and trade union movements in the US that started in the 1860’s, with the rise of craft unions, and was formalized in the 1930’s after the compromises and concessions made by leading elements of the trade union movement to facilitate the institutionalization of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), or the Wagner Act. 

The main compromise committed by the forces of the AFL-CIO in adopting the Wagner Act, was agreeing to the concession of keeping the trade unions from acting as a class. Instead, it compelled the trade unions to act as individual, largely isolated organizations that bargained with private employers on their own, by dividing essential tasks and roles into specialities and divisions, even within one corporation. So, instead of one bargain unit holding ground at Ford Motors or Walmart for instance, the law enabled and encouraged shop workers, truckers, clerks, etc. to each form their own bargaining units to compete with each other and negotiate with ownership and management. The act implicitly forbade formations like the International Workers of the World (IWW), which called for workers to organize under the banner of “one big tent”, to  work in unison to transform the economy, society, and the state. Since the 1930’s, most trade union bosses have viewed efforts by workers to form cooperatives as either a distraction, because of their struggles to grow to scale due to their lack of access to capital, or as outright enemies when they grow to scale and appear to steal market share from their employers. Given the present weaknesses of both the trade union and cooperative movements, particularly as it relates to membership scale and density, both of these sectors desperately need each other, if only to give themselves more leverage to contend with capital. So, it is pivotal that those of us in the cooperative and solidarity economy sector be clear about how and why we want and need to engage the trade union movement in particular, and workers movement in general overall. The road is clear, we either unite or perish, because our present conditions necessitate that we build ecosocialism or face extinction. 

As our dear comrade, ally and mentor Tim Schermerhorn used to say, “the working class has to use all of the tools in our toolkit, and all of the weapons in our arsenal” to unite the working class and defeat the forces of capitalism and imperialism in order to usher in a new world. We hope this little contribution shared on the occasion of International Workers Day 2023 and the 9th anniversary of Cooperation Jackson will help stimulate some much needed debate first and foremost amongst the cooperative and solidarity economy sectors of the working class about what it will take to transform the economy, and more broadly amongst the billions of toilers of the world, about what is needed to hasten our unity and bring the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the death cult of capitalism to an end. 

This essay originally published by Cooperation Jackson, on May 1st, 2023.  

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