The Sounds of Silence

The Sounds of Silence

Voting is a privilege and a responsibility that every American bears. Allowing prisoners to vote will keep us honest.


This is the third installment in Walter Mosley’s cycle of essays on Cultural Famine. The other installments appeared in the October 23 and December 18 issues. –The Editors

The word suffrage has nothing to do with the verb to suffer, or so my Oxford dictionary tells me. But the poet in me sees a connection. Voting is a serious enterprise. My choices of who speaks for me, decisions about laws that govern me and parties that represent my interests are the most important activities in my sociopolitical life. My ability to understand and make choices in the political arena is therefore paramount for me and my country. And if I fail to choose correctly or, even worse, neglect to participate in this enterprise, a whole nation, maybe an entire world, will suffer.

All Americans should vote. Every last one of us who is eligible should enter that ballot booth and punch out our choices.

Who should be eligible? Every living, breathing citizen of this land regardless of race, gender, intelligence or criminal history.

Millions of convicted felons across the nation, once they have served their sentence, find they are not allowed to participate in the electoral process–the fact of their conviction barring them from the very act that defines our national identity and our citizenship. This is possibly a worse sentence than the one they have already served. If a woman cannot vote, if a man cannot cast his ballot, they are being punished again for a crime they have already paid for. And the punishment is the abrogation of their nationality. Not only are these ex-convicts punished but the whole nation suffers, as we are deprived of the participation of our full citizenry.

And there’s another problem: The penal system in the United States is both racist and classist. Staggering numbers of our convicts are illiterate, from impoverished backgrounds and of color. Many thousands more are severely mentally ill or afflicted with learning disabilities or retardation. It’s not that other classes of people don’t commit crimes; it’s that they don’t get convicted at the same rates as those who cannot afford adequate legal representation. Poverty, more than any other cause, fills our prisons with potentially productive and positive citizens.

Citizens. It doesn’t matter what crime you’ve committed; if you are a citizen of this nation, then you will continue to be one. No matter if you kite checks, get into bar brawls, murder for hire or tunnel into banks. It doesn’t matter if you have carried an illegal weapon or even committed some heinous crime against children or the elderly. No matter what you’ve done you are still a citizen, and as a citizen you have certain inalienable rights. And the most important of those rights is the franchise to vote.

How can I make such an outlandish claim?

The Census.

Every decade the government sends out its bean counters to enumerate Americans in their places of residence with tons of attendant data including race, gender, geographic location, profession, age and a thousand other factors. One use for this Big Count is to tell the government how to structure the House of Representatives and how to apportion monies.

So, if you live in a town of 1,500 women, children and men and your town council votes to allow a private prison to be built within your borders, a prison that will house 2,500 souls, let’s say, then the next census will count 4,000 residents in your little hamlet. Four thousand residents and fewer than half of them can vote. Four thousand residents and most of them cannot take advantage of what the government has to offer.

How do we deal with this problem? Ignore it? Revoke the political humanity of all prisoners? Say that it’s their problem for being born poor white or black or brown? Because that’s why they’re there.

Many young black and brown men and women are incarcerated for extraordinarily long terms because of the constitutionally questionable practice of sentencing according to whether the defendant is gang-related.

Gang-related. That means because the defendant was seen in the company of his cousin Jo-Jo from across the street (Jo-Jo, who did nickel for drug possession and who got gang tattoos in the joint to protect his ass). Because the defendant was seen with his cousin he is to be considered to have some level of membership in a gang. And who testifies? Police officers who may or may not have seen the accused drinking a beer on Jo-Jo’s porch.

These sorely pressed men and women are human beings, citizens of this land.

Voting is not a privilege but a responsibility that each and every American bears. Allowing prisoners and ex-convicts to vote will keep us honest. The laws, good and bad, affect them as much if not more than the rest of us. And voting will not give them more money or freedom to run the streets and commit crimes (or drink beers). Voting will help to articulate the valid needs and perspectives of our millions of convicted felons.

And what if Tiny Town USA decides that it can’t support a prison that might tip its mayoral election? Too bad. These are human beings we’re talking about–not slaves or beasts. No matter how well hidden they are, no matter how successfully they have been silenced, these prisoners deserve every right afforded to any American. They’re already incarcerated. They’re already doing time. They have been found guilty of breaking the law in our flawed system and sentenced. But they have not been found evil; they have not been relieved of their citizenship.

Let’s allow ex-convicts, and convicts too, to become a part of our political dialogue. Let’s make our elected officials responsible to all Americans. And let’s have those Americans bring new information to the dialogue.

Maybe, just maybe, they will tell us some things that might make us a stronger, more just union.

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