A push toward restoring the voting rights of prisoners in Massachusetts

A condemned inmate stands with handcuffs on as he prepares to be released from the exercise yard back to his cell at San Quentin State Prison’s death row. Photo Courtesy of Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

By Suryatapa Chakraborty

Boston University News Service

Lawmakers, prisoners and advocacy groups declared at a virtual conference on Monday that Massachusetts should restore voting rights to currently incarcerated prisoners, a large percentage of whom are people of color, as a matter of democracy and racial justice.

Organized by the Sentencing Project and Democracy Behind Bars Coalition, the conference announced the release of a Sentencing Project report focusing on the racial impacts of disenfranchisement of felons in Massachusetts. 

The Sentencing Project is a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington D.C. that works to address racial injustice in the U.S. criminal legal system. The report explained how the ban on the right to vote specifically affects the Black and Latinx communities, which form 31% and 29% of the prison population in the state respectively. 

The report also highlights that over 7,700 individuals in Massachusetts are banned from voting because of the constitutional amendment in 2000 that took away the voting rights of an incarcerated felon. 

“So let’s fix that,” said Nicole D. Porter, Senior Director of Advocacy at the Sentencing Project. 

Porter said Massachusetts should join Maine, Vermont and Washington D.C. in making sure that all citizens can participate in the “democratic process” of voting.

“There is only so much work outside advocates can do, and so we are calling on legislators to meet with and listen to their incarcerated constituents directly,” said Elly Kalfus, an organizer with Democracy Behind Bars Coalition, a community organization that advocates prisoners’ rights. 

“We should be furthering people’s democracy, not limiting it,” said Sen. Liz Miranda, D-Boston. 

Miranda said that the voting ban not only silences the voice of the individuals, but also disproportionately affects the communities of color. “It’s a matter of racial justice.”

The proposal for a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of incarcerated felons, which was filed by Miranda, was approved by the Election Laws Committee last April and awaits further action.

“Re-enfranchisement is essential to rehabilitation,” says Joshua “Hamza” Berrios, member of the African American Coalition Committee and currently an incarcerated prisoner. 

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