Facing Life Imprisonment from Inside Jail, All I Had Left Was My Right to Vote

by Joe Watson |

Unless you have zero sense of civic duty, you probably know that today is Election Day in multiple states and municipalities across the country. Here at home in Tucson, there’s a mayoral election, plus the fate of multiple city council seats and citywide initiatives in the balance.

As a longtime political junkie and a firm believer that voting is the single greatest thing we can do as a republic to effect immediate change in our communities, nothing gets me amped up quite like an Election Day.  Almost nothing could keep me from going to the polls.

Not even jail.

Think that’s hyperbole? Think again. Because once, when I faced a potential life sentence in prison, voting was all that I had left of the free world.

That I could do something from jail only a free man could gave me a sense that my humanity still existed.

I was arrested in March 2007 in Scottsdale. It was my first felony arrest, and within months – as I tried to adjust to a new reality inside the infamous Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix – prosecutors presented me with two options: take my case to trial, where I faced certain conviction and a mandatory life sentence, or sign the only plea bargain prosecutors would ever present me and spend 25 years in prison.

Neither choice, of course, was an easy one to make. So, I didn’t.

Instead, over the span of nearly 42 months, I maneuvered my way through both the legal system and Maricopa County’s labyrinthine jail system (the fourth-largest in the country), arguing and pleading with anyone for a fair outcome: the opportunity to return home in my relative youth and make amends to my community.

All the while, since I had never been convicted of any prior felonies, it did not escape me that I maintained my right to vote. And that’s how, in February 2008, as a still-registered voter, I found myself casting a ballot in the presidential primary.

From jail.

When I’d first asked a guard weeks before for a ballot, she thought that I was kidding. She’d never been asked for a ballot before, she told me, and she’d “have to look into it.” As best as she could, she avoided me for weeks, before finally – just before the ballot mail-in deadline – she gave me one and told me to get it back to her the next day. Once I completed it, she took the ballot and told me she’d get it to the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office in time to be counted. I have no reason to doubt she did exactly that.

Voting from the inside gave me a reason to wake up day-in and day-out. That I was still contributing to the process, and I could do something from jail only a free man could, gave me a sense that my humanity still existed. With it, I had hope. Not just that I could change the outcome of an election, but that I could change myself.

After I refused to sign a plea bargain for 25 years, my fate was in the hands of a judge who possessed virtually indeterminate discretion to decide how long I would spend in prison. Arizona’s harsh sentencing guidelines, in fact, permitted him to give me as many as 214 years inside the Arizona Department of Corrections. And no, that’s not a typo.

But thanks to a cosmic series of events that brought together so many magical people I’d never known before – but who exhausted themselves, nonetheless, to save my life – the judge was persuaded to sentence me to 12 years in prison. In June 2017, I was released from prison into what Arizona calls “community supervision,” which, for me, ended several months ago.

Today, I’m a married homeowner and parent. I have an incredible job here at AFSC-Arizona, which works to reduce the size and scope of the punishment system. And in that capacity, I’ve been fortunate to work with a coalition of organizations, led by the Arizona Advocacy Network (AZAN), that is pushing the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office (MCRO) and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) to ensure that people stuck in pretrial detention know their rights.

In several meetings now with representatives from both MCSO and MCRO, we’ve collaborated to put programs in place for voter registration, voter education, and to encourage voter turnout in next year’s presidential preference election – all inside the Maricopa County Jail system, assisting folks who still possess the right to vote as pretrial detainees.

Through our work, the coalition has learned just how willing are counties across Arizona to implement the same constitutional safeguards within their jails. And once MCRO and MCSO master the process, imagine how much easier it will be for other counties – most of which operate just one jail – to honor detainees’ voting rights.

Now, while we work to GOTV inside our jails, Arizona still bars around 150,000 people with felony convictions across this state from voting once they’re back on the outside, according to our friends at the ACLU of Arizona. And I suppose this celebration of democracy is all wildly ironic coming from me since, thanks to multiple convictions, I remain one of the disenfranchised, despite a successful return to my community.

The truth is that, while voting from inside jail gave me back my humanity and inspired me to change from within, those who continue to support felony disenfranchisement, in short, don’t care about all that. But maybe with some help from those on the inside, we can change that, too.

Joe Watson is the communications coordinator for AFSC-Arizona.

 

 

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