By Martin L. Lockett
When I came to prison nearly 15 years ago at the age of 24 for DUI manslaughter, I deemed my life an utter failure and, in my mind, had concluded my life was essentially over. Due to Oregon’s mandatory minimum laws, I wouldn’t be released until the age of 42. I would be starting a new career 20 years behind the rest of society and branded a felon with major convictions on my record. How could I have reached any other conclusion?
It was nearly a year later, however, that my perspective radically changed. This was spurred by spending countless hours in deep meditation, searching of a way to ascertain how I was going to make sense of this tragedy and, perhaps more importantly, how I was going to spend the next 17.5 years of my young life behind bars.
This process of self-discovery led me to the keen conviction that the only way this tragedy would not be in vain was if I devoted the rest of my life to the important cause of preventing others from following in my footsteps; if I made a solemn commitment to honor my victims by doing everything in my power to help others through their addiction, thus lessening potential victimization in my community that could have otherwise been committed by someone who was active in their addiction.
Toward this effort, I have earned a Bachelor’s in Sociology, Master’s in Psychology, published two books, gotten state certified as a recovery mentor (CRM), and will become a state-certified drug and alcohol counselor by the end of this year. I work in this capacity for the substance abuse treatment program offered in the prison and volunteer to co-facilitate DUI victim impact panels on weekends. By all accounts, I would be deemed rehabilitated, highly unlikely to ever re-offend, and suitable to reintegrate back into the community as a full citizen. There’s only one major problem that precludes this from happening: I can’t vote.
The right to vote in local, state, and federal elections as a US citizen is one of the fundamental hallmarks of our democratic republic. It’s what differentiates us from countless other dictatorial countries and is a central attraction for many around the world to abandon their homelands and renounce their citizenship for more equal rights on our soil. Yet, over two million of us “branded” citizens will never (or at least until laws change in many states) enjoy this coveted American right again.
How is it that we claim to be a forgiving nation, one that espouses everyone is inherently deserving of a “second change,” yet we deny them the opportunity to fully reintegrate into our communities, and society at large, by stripping away their right to participate in our democratic process after they’ve made a costly decision? How can our state governments justify taking taxes from our hard-earned paychecks, while denying us the right to vote on issues that our tax dollars will be spent on? I believe we fought a war over this very issue in 1776. How is it we can proclaim to be a forgiving nation, one that deems someone’s “debt” to society to be paid in full when he or she has served their time, yet continue to punish them for the rest of their lives by forbidding them their right to fully participate in society through the American democratic process?
In my estimation, it is exactly this discrimination—amongst others, such as housing, employment, educational funding, etc.—that conveys to the newly-released person that his or her life is never fully redeemable; that society will never view him or her as deserving the same rights and privileges as those who were never arrested and convicted for things they may have done as a reckless teen, young adult or, for many of us, while in our active addiction. It is this communal and societal exclusion that, sadly, ostracizes those without a strong support system to the point that they feel their lone option is to return to the only way of life they have ever known—regardless of how self-destructive and counterproductive it may be.
Prior to coming to prison, I had never given voting much of a thought. I assumed politics didn’t have any bearing on those of us who lived in the “hood.” As a now 39-year-old man who has paid close attention to politics and the political process since 2007—when the first person who looked like me stood a viable chance of being elected to the highest office in the land—I know it is vital for each and every citizen to be well informed of the local politics that affect local issues, state issues that obviously impact all citizens of the state, and federal elections that have even greater, more widespread consequences for all of us. It is, therefore, my position that all citizens of the United States must be allowed the opportunity to have their fundamental right to vote fully restored after they have completed their term of imprisonment—not after they have completed their post-prison supervision, but immediately upon their release from a state or federal facility. After all, don’t they become members of their communities immediately upon their release? Aren't they expected by their parole officers to find and maintain gainful employment immediately upon their release? Don’t we expect them to abide by all the laws of their respective states immediately upon their release? So why the prolonged wait in some states to fully reinstate their voting rights until after they have completed their parole, if at all? This is unacceptable; this is undemocratic; this is “un-American.”