The Atlantic

In Prison, and Fighting to Vote

A campaign for suffrage is growing inside prisons. Is anyone listening?
Source: Ana Martinez / Reuters

When Derrick Washington, a 34-year-old incarcerated in Massachusetts, found a pocket legal dictionary in prison, he decided to memorize every amendment to the United States Constitution. He was particularly struck by the Thirteenth Amendment, which states that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime, shall not exist; to him, it codified his status as a “slave of the state of Massachusetts.” Around that time, he said, his prison was not allowing phone calls, and showers were restricted as part of a lockdown. He said he did not understand how administrators were allowed to “treat us how they were treating us.” He was moved to do something about his situation. In 2012, he founded the Emancipation Initiative, an advocacy group that, as one of its priorities, wants all prisoners in the U.S. to be able to vote.

Washington began trying to educate others in his prison about the civic process by walking up to them and asking, “Who represents you?” At first, he said, “they’d be puzzled and say something like, ‘My mom.’” But then he would explain how not being able to vote affects them—for example, when it comes to the high price of prison phone calls. The way Washington saw it, if people in prison had the right to participate in the

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