top of page

Formerly incarcerated citizens re-engage with the political process

March 31, 2018

Samaria Bailey

The Philadelphia Tribune

After serving more than 31 years of a life sentence on a homicide charge, Suave Gonzalez was released on Nov. 20, 2017, set free because of a 2012 Supreme Court decision that ruled sentencing juveniles to life without parole was unconstitutional. Gonzalez, 48, had been in prison since he was 17 years old.

“It was voters that got tired of seeing young kids being thrown in jail for life,” Gonzalez said. “They decided to use their power. If Black people and Hispanics would not have voted Barack Obama into the presidency, juvenile lifers would not be out of jail today. Obama [appointed] Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Kagan to the United States Supreme Court and those votes were the two votes we needed to give juvenile lifers a second chance, so that’s the power of voting today.”

When Gonzalez began his sentence at Graterford Correctional Facility, he “could not read … or write.” But he studied until he earned a bachelor’s degree and was working on a master’s by the time he left. In March, he began serving as executive director of the Nu-Stop Resource Center.

Now, he arrives at the “office” at 7:30 a.m. daily to serve the people of Kensington — helping men and women living with an opioid addiction, giving food to families looking for their next meal, and helping people find jobs.

Regardless of the circumstance, he also asks them to register to vote. By the end of March, he said they had registered 88 people.

“I’m doing the same work I did in prison … mobilizing people to vote. It’s just on a different level and I get paid for it,” he said. “No one knows better than those who have been incarcerated for decades, the power of voting. But nobody’s influencing the people.”

When he was in prison, Gonzalez remembers some members of city council and state reps visiting to discuss their agendas. Although he said the inmates could not vote while incarcerated, they were able to reach people on the outside who could. So while he has encountered numerous instances of candidates pitching their platforms in Graterford, he said that he has not seen much of them since he has left.

“We encouraged so many people to vote that politicians would come to jail seeking our vote. We couldn’t vote but my people could, we could pick up the phone and encourage people to vote, that’s why so many go to Graterford seeking our help.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (PA), a person, including those who have been convicted as felons, can vote once they have been released from prison.

People on probation and parole can vote.

People in jail and prison for a misdemeanor; people in jail waiting for trial; People who are on house arrest; and people who are on parole or probation and live in a halfway house or “community corrections center” can vote with an absentee ballot.

The ACLU-PA said that the only people who cannot vote are “people who are in prison or jail because of a felony conviction and who won’t be released before the election” and “people who have been convicted of violating Pennsylvania election laws within the past four years.”

Even though they do have the right, Gonzalez and other organizers said there are not enough returning citizens voting.

“It’s people who have been home for 10, 15, 20 years and didn’t know they could vote. They never participated in the election process,” said Reuben Jones, executive director of Frontline Dads, and a returning citizen who left prison in 2002.

Jones said since the founding of the organization, he and other organizers have worked with returning citizens one-on-one and in public forums, educating them on their voting rights.

“Some people think once you get convicted, you are barred from voting,” he said. “People are a lot more aware now [but] you’d still be surprised by how many people are not registered to vote, even if they are aware.”

In a statistical report on returning citizens, the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition estimated that “around 25,000 people were released to Philadelphia annually between 2012 and 2015.” And although they do not have an exact number, they estimate that there are about 200,000 to 300,000 returning citizens living in the city, but they do not have statistics on returning citizens who are registered or who actually vote.

According to the city commissioner’s office Annual Report on Election and Voter Registration Activity, in the 2014 race for governor, state reps and congresspeople, “19 percent of the 1,029,049 voters who were eligible to vote in the primary election” voted and 37 percent of the 1,032,322 voters who were eligible to vote in the General Election” actually voted.

“Everyone doesn’t believe going to the polls actually makes a difference in their day to day lives,” Jones said. “Some people celebrated the election of Obama, others didn’t give a damn. Some people right now are opposing Trump, others don’t give a damn. It’s all part of a continuum of oppression by a political system that’s devaluing them, so rather be a participant to their own victimization, they say “F-it, I’m going to let them do what they do, [I] ain’t going to pick my poison.”

Tim, a returning citizen from West Philadelphia who got out of prison 10 years ago, remembered the last time he voted was for Obama’s last term.

He discussed his views on state and local elected officials and the voting process while standing outside in Kensington, near Front Street and Lehigh Avenue.

“Them politicians ain’t going to come down here in this hood. Look at this hood, ain’t nothing but dope, dope fiends,” he said.

When asked why he hadn’t voted since the Obama re-election, he replied: “I don’t know. Ain’t no need. I didn’t like Hillary Clinton.”

As for legislators, he added, “Ain’t vote for them … I don’t know, I don’t have no feelings toward it. They can make a better community, though, clean up around here, clean all these dope fiends up. Everybody should vote, I just didn’t vote because …” he said, searching for a reason. “I don’t know why I didn’t vote.”

Even though he still votes, Jones said he understands the apathy some citizens have when it comes to voting and that it largely stems from the non-progress of Black communities.

“I think some of our politicians have straight up sold us out. Prior to this current administration, we saw Black leadership at every level — mayor, police commissioner, district attorney [and] Black people in this city haven’t benefited to any significant degree. We see a lot of development and construction, yet we have a high unemployment rate, high incarceration rate,” he said. “Look at Comcast — a Black man with a record can’t even get a job at Comcast, but [they] are … based right here in Philadelphia, but [they] have no sense of commitment to the people of Philadelphia.”

Crystal Walker, 35, of North Philadelphia, served a 13-year sentence and has been out for more than five years. Having learned from her grandfather who taught her “Democrats were for people and Republicans make the rich, richer,” she still votes even though she hasn’t seen much change for the better for people coming home from prison.

“‘I’m grateful for the job I have now. I tried to move on to something better but because of my 20-year-old conviction, it prevented me from moving forward,” she said. “I was 16 [at incarceration]. I came home at almost 30. And at 30 you don’t think the way you do at 16, so if you can’t see my growth and how I’m trying to progress … I just feel like when will you give me an opportunity to be greater?”

This issue, Walker said, is one that elected officials have the power to change, if they keep their word.

“I hear a lot of the [elected officials] saying what they want to do, how they are going to do it,” she said. “I want to believe they want to help us but I also feel when they get in office, nothing changes. If we get someone in there who really wants to support returning citizens, let’s not keep them stagnated, let’s keep them productive in the community.

bottom of page