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Berkshire State Senator Hinds Presses For Voting Rights For Incarcerated People At Virtual Town Hall

Five people in a Zoom meeting

Western Massachusetts State Senator Adam Hinds participated in a virtual town hall meeting on ending the disenfranchisement of incarcerated people Wednesday night.

The town hall was held by the Democracy Behind Bars Coalition, a group of community and advocacy organizations working to ensure voting access to incarcerated people.

Citing the impact of mass incarceration, Keeda Haynes of the Sentencing Project said that the number of disenfranchised people in the United States has grown from 1.2 million in 1976 to 5.2 million today.

“With Black people five times more likely to be jailed than whites, this de facto disenfranchisement also diminishes the voting strength of the entire Black communities resulting in even less of an opportunity to affect a much needed positive change,” she said.

Haynes spoke not just as an advocate, but from personal experience.

“I spent almost four years in federal prison behind a marijuana situation and now we have people that are making millions off of marijuana," said Haynes. "And when I was incarcerated, I didn't have the opportunity to vote.”

Hinds, a Democrat from the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden district, is the presenter of state Senate bill 474, which sets out to “protect the voting rights of eligible incarcerated people.”

“When we're trying to dismantle our systems that are racist, that have racist outcomes, it takes lifting up the hood in our own commonwealth and saying, what are the implications?" said Hinds. "What were the intentions for both in the past and the legacies that we're dealing with now? And that's one of the reasons I worked with Rep. Miranda to file the jail-based voting bill and then separately, the felony re-enfranchisement bill.”

“My father was incarcerated, my brothers were incarcerated. I'm actually the only legislator in Massachusetts that has a sibling who is still doing time in the DLC system," said Democratic State Representative Liz Miranda of the 5th Suffolk District, a co-presenter of the House version of the bill. “Massachusetts has this faux liberalism where it talks about being one of the bluest states in the nation, yet we send Black people to jail eight times more than white people here. And I think that this bill, along with a whole slew of other bills that I have on parole, and juvenile justice and mandatory minimums, it's because I think we're in denial here. And we're not better than any other state.”

Hinds explained how the legislation he and Miranda are backing would require the sheriffs and superintendents who run county correction facilities to ensure voter education outreach within their institutions.

“This bill says, look, we do need to have a database of what actions have been taken, who's eligible and who's still needs to be registered within each HOC, etc." he explained. "Does everybody know their rights? So there's an education requirement. Are the materials available? So we put it in statute that the materials need to be provided. Creating an automatic voter registration agency in jails and prisons. Administrative changes, so that there can be direct reporting on participation that I was referring to.”

“We know that the history of taking the rights of voting away from those incarcerated in United States of America has been linked back to the ending after the Civil War, the end of slavery. So we know that felony disenfranchisement is a tool of white supremacy," said Al-Ameen Patterson.

Currently serving a 15-years-to-life sentence on a murder conviction, Patterson is the chairman of the African American Coalition Committee in the Norfolk prison he’s incarcerated in.

“The sheriffs, they’re guilty of deliberate indifference," he said. "Because they just show no interest in publishing the rights, the policies and procedures of voting while incarcerated. And in some instances, it’s kind of a conflict of interest to even give them that responsibility, because some of these sheriffs, they may feel as though that this is a demographic of people will that not want to vote for me, because they know all this stuff that they’re doing to the people while incarcerated.”

The panel also included New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who shared that he grew up with family members who were incarcerated.

“The reason I'm on this panel is because of the work that me and my teammates have done over the last couple of years of getting more involved with voter suppression, whether it's been education, criminal justice system," said McCourty. "We've tried to really be an advocate and help fight for some of the people who struggle to have a voice and, you know, people don't really want to listen to. So it's been a great joy of mine over these last few years to represent multiple communities and do a lot with my friends and teammates.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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