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Ballots Behind Bars

Democracy doesn't stop at the jail's front door.

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It was the afternoon of Friday, November 3, time for voting to begin at Cook County Jail, but the voting machines, election judges, and ballots were late. From now through Sunday, voting machines would be set up in various locations around the jail's 11 divisions--a law library, a dining hall, and here, in the nondenominational Mother York Chapel inside the new maximum security facility at 3015 S. California. This building houses about 1,500 prisoners, held on serious charges like rape, criminal assault, and murder. Until they're convicted of a felony, detainees have the right to cast absentee ballots. (In Illinois convicts can vote after their sentence is served, but some states take away the right for good.)

Finally, a little before 4:30, five election judges arrived, pulling a large cart containing voting machines and stands. As the judges set up the booths on the chapel's stage, the first few voters, dressed in tan uniforms that in another setting might be taken for doctors' scrubs, were led into the chapel. They filed onto the stage, were given pins to punch their ballots, and took their places behind the stands. Then one of the judges gave instructions, announcement style, on how to vote.

"It's important to actually exercise your right to vote," said Pat Brazier, a correctional rehab worker in charge of the voting process for the entire jail. "Just because you're incarcerated doesn't mean everything is over. You still have some rights."

While the voters pondered their choices, another dozen or so inmates came in escorted by corrections officers. With their plastic sandals flip-flapping, they took their seats like birds assembling on a telephone wire. Slowly others arrived, and the crowd soon filled 100 or so seats, the noise building as voices rose and bounced off the chapel's high ceiling. A CNN camera crew snaked its way through the room, and all eyes rested on a young woman wearing a black trench coat.

After almost 20 minutes, the election judges began to chafe slightly, checking their watches. "Maybe they're having trouble reading," one judge worried. But before long the first voter stepped away from his stand. On his way back to his seat, Ryan B. told me, "I'm a very strong supporter of Bush. One important reason is his abortion issue. I studied a lot on that. I was affected by abortion in my family."

Thanks to a series of continuances, Ryan, a powerfully built Latino, has resided at the jail for two years. Surveying the crowd of mostly African-American detainees, he said, "I've been sort of threatened, like, 'How dare you vote for Bush around here!'" He said the death penalty isn't his concern: "It doesn't scare me. The bigger issue with me is babies being killed all day long."

Though Ryan had been instructed by corrections officials not to talk about his case, he did say of abortion, "You can almost say it led me here. I was always against it."

Dorsey C., an African-American with gray streaks in his goatee, relinquished his hole puncher and descended the steps of the stage looking thoughtful. He wouldn't reveal his choice for president but said, "I'm a Democrat. I'm voting on prescription drugs for the elderly and the disabled. It affects people in my family--me eventually as well.

"It's important for everyone to vote," he said, smiling. "I don't know if the people I voted for will get in here, but at least I had my chance to vote for the person I wanted."

Voting privileges were first extended at the jail in the late 1960s, when it was a much smaller facility. In the early 1970s voting here yielded as few as 150 votes per election.

The number of votes has gone up along with the size of the population (about 10,000 at the moment). This election, about 25 percent were registered to vote and would be delivered to the polls courtesy of the sheriff. With a laugh Brazier attributes turnout to the "captive audience." Shortly before elections, representatives from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners visit detainees, encouraging them to vote and registering interested parties. Politicians don't seem to be tempted to make similar house calls. "They steer clear of the jail because of the stigma," Brazier said, "because then it would be, so-and-so went to the jail for votes."

Sources of campaign information are few. There's television, of course. Occasionally newspapers are left behind by officers, and some inmates receive magazines in the mail. "These aren't Time or Newsweek," said Henry Troka, superintendent of the division. "They're more on the order of the plain brown wrapper." Ryan B., however, said he'd read about Bush's stance on abortion in a religious publication mailed to him by a family member.

But some voters, Brazier said, repeat offenders and even inmates new to the system, possess a special familiarity with certain candidates: "We can hear them saying things like, 'Don't vote for that judge. That's my judge. He's gonna give me some time.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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