September 21, 2017
Got Convictions? No problem.
It is common knowledge that the New Orleans jail (still known as OPP) incarcerates people at a rate double the next highest cities. Likewise, it is internationally known that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 28% of the imprisoned people coming from New Orleans and the adjacent Jefferson Parish. Nearly every single one of these people will get out, and come home to deal with life with a criminal record and prison time behind them.
The majority of people dealing with criminal records discrimination, which includes the suspension of voting rights while on probation or parole, were not sent to prison. In New Orleans, they are likely to have spent less than 10 days at the newly built Orleans Justice Center (still known as “OPP”). The OJC’s incarceration rate is even more glaring than the Louisiana Department of Corrections, as our predominantly pre-trial population is twice as high as the next highest cities. Double?! Yes.
This is primarily because the magistrate judges, District Attorney, and bail bond industry all have a stake in keeping people inside, either at an extraordinarily high bond, or holding them with no possibility of release, or having no review done following a mandatory short hold. This detention helps leverage guilty pleas on people desperate to go home and try to maintain or rebuild their lives. The judges and district attorney are elected. And in a city with roughly 100,000 people facing criminal records discrimination, that is a solid electoral base when only 160,000 people voted for president in 2016.
How can convicted people be part of putting people in power?
At this moment, there are about 6000 people from New Orleans incarcerated upstate in the prisons, and another 7000 are living in New Orleans under community supervision. By next year, most of those people under supervision will be on for two years or less; if they are steady voters, they might only miss one or two elections.
Those 13,000 people denied voting rights all know people who have the right to vote. If each of them were to guide two people on how to vote in a just and equitable manner, on getting rid of politicians whose answers to social problems is to cage us, on exposing those officials who profit off our pain, this would be the greatest voting bloc in the history of New Orleans.
Where did disenfranchisement come from?
150 years ago, following the Civil War, people were convicted, enslaved, and leased out for their labor. They were denied their new voting rights (and most of them were Black, many who never gained the actual right to vote). Despite the 13th Amendment, poll taxes, and other forms of legal or terrorist tactics, Black people ultimately became roughly half the voters in Louisiana during Reconstruction. Until some leaders invented the Literacy Test, knowing that a far greater percentage of White people were literate than Black. After the Literacy Test massively cut down on the overall number of voters, and turned 50/50 into 90/10, those leaders put a Constitutional Convention on the ballot. Every delegate was white, and they gathered together to openly “purify the ballot,” and enshrine white supremacy forever- or so they repeatedly said in the transcripts. The 1901 Louisiana Constitution did not even need to go to the voters for ratification. It self-ratified. And Black participation in Louisiana elections was under 10% until the 1970s.
Today, nobody speaks openly of racism in mainstream politics. Nobody is incarcerated explicitly to be enslaved, and only the state agencies can use the enslaved labor. But the laws remain, from the 13th Amendment allowing slavery to the post-Civil War laws to disenfranchise, to the 1976 law to suspend voting rights to people on probation or parole- which is 72,000 people today.
Today’s elected officials are the stewards of the policies, whether crafted last year by a diverse coalition or 100 years ago under the direction of the White League. Today’s candidates have to own the playbook, and vow to change what is wrong.
Where do we go from here?
People with convictions are throughout New Orleans. We are cooking food, fixing cars, earning doctoral degrees, driving taxis, fixing the yard, and raising children. We are in your family, and part of your alma mater, and on your street. We care about having better approaches to homelessness, addiction, unemployment, and trauma; and we don’t see the incarceration industry as a cash cow.
When the sheriff, judge, and district attorney all treat people like members of their own families, then we will have succeeded. Until that day, we come together and get organized.
For people currently under supervision, each month the DOC will report to the Secretary of State who is newly free. This will allow you to walk into the Registrar’s Office and register. For support doing that, contact our partners at Voice of the Experienced.