It was 1986, and Jan Warren knew she had to do something to change her life. She wanted to get home to California where her father had just died and left her a produce business. But Warren, 35, was stuck on the East Coast with no money, in a dead-end relationship and pregnant. Desperate, she made a mistake: She agreed to sell cocaine for her cousin. It was the only time Warren had ever sold drugs, and it turned out to be a police sting.
Under strict New York drug laws, Warren was given fifteen years to life. And one sunny Memorial Day in the prison yard, Warren suddenly understood that serving time in prison was going to cost her more than her physical freedom. “I knew people who had died in the wars. I thought of them on Memorial Day–that’s what you were supposed to do,” said Warren, now 52. “But on that holiday, I realized that something was missing. It was the American flag. It was gone. I couldn’t see it. And that should have been my first clue. If you saw the flag you might think of yourself as a citizen with certain inalienable rights, and the truth is, that’s wrong.”
Warren added, “I didn’t realize that part of the whole prison system is set up to alienate you from society, because now I can’t vote. And without being able to vote, what politician is going to say, ‘Well, Ms. Warren, you have a very good point and because you’re one of my constituents I’m going to listen to you’?”
Eventually Warren, a registered Republican, wrote to New York Governor George Pataki after serving six years, and she was later granted clemency–but still not the right to vote. New York laws say any felon in prison or on parole loses that right, and Warren may be on parole for life.
Tough drug laws are one of the primary reasons women like Warren end up in prison. Drug laws are also one of the principal reasons that today one in twenty men can expect to spend part of his life in prison. And an exploding prison population means nearly 5 million people are unable to vote because they have been convicted of a felony–defined as any crime that carries a sentence of a year or more in prison. Today felons and former felons are the single largest group currently barred by law from voting in the United States.
Voting rights are left up to the states, so the laws vary. Only Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote. Most states take the right away from those in prison and also those on parole or probation. While most states also return the right to vote once the terms of a sentence have been completed, thirteen states, five of them in the South, take voting rights away for life–a punishment extremely rare in the rest of the Western world. As a result, there are now more ex-prisoners than prisoners in the United States who can’t vote.
Civil rights advocates predict that voting rights for prisoners and ex-prisoners will be the next US suffrage movement, as lawyers, prison advocates, voting rights groups and foundations have recently begun to join forces and take up the cause. “The United States, this great democracy, was founded as this experiment, and it was a great experiment. But it was a very limited one as well,” says Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a prison advocacy group in Washington, DC. “At the time the country was founded, essentially a group of wealthy white men granted themselves the right to vote.” Mauer says that today, we look back on that decision with some degree of national embarrassment, and our history since then has been one of trying to open the franchise.