In 1992, Nasir Blackwell was desperate. He had been convicted of murder and sentenced to be executed. While incarcerated in Pontiac Correctional Center, he visited the law library—a six-by-nine-foot cell, most of its books published in the 50s—and picked up a volume on homicide. “I began studying law. I was studying history, and so I began studying the history of jurisprudence. I could not believe how law was man-made,” he says. “It just became a passion. It helped me litigate on behalf of people that were incarcerated. I was empowering voices—teaching people how to study law, [helping] if they needed a transfer.”
Blackwell’s death sentence was thrown out by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1996; he received a 49-year prison term after his retrial. In prison, he eventually made it to Danville Correctional Center, where there was a bigger library, and read nearly all the books there. He also helped organize a tutoring program at Danville that, he says, significantly improved educational participation in the prison, whose inmate population until then had a low literacy rate. And he formed groups with other inmates to lead conversations around masculinity, conflict, and basic civics. “We talked about the democratic process and government involvement. There’s a lot of negative feedback [from other prisoners] telling you the system is rigged,” Blackwell says. “Once you have the knowledge that you can speak out against an issue that affects you, that’s empowering.”
Upon his release on parole in 2015, he began organizing for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). Now, Blackwell, 54, and IMAN are part of a coalition working on a new piece of statewide legislation that would give more inmates access to the knowledge he found so liberating. House Bill 2541, which is due for a full vote from the state Senate later this month, would put in place a civics education program for people who are about to be released from prison, taught primarily by their fellow prisoners—one of the first of its kind in the country.
The bill is in large part the brainchild of Christina Rivers, a political science professor at DePaul University. While much of Rivers’s early work focused on constitutional law—she wrote a book about the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act—she says that in recent years her research has shifted toward the problem of felony disenfranchisement. In drafting an early version of the bill, Rivers got a boost from her students; she used some of the research papers from a class on law, politics, and mass incarceration as inspiration. (The class itself alternates annually: one year it’s taught at DePaul, the other at Stateville Correctional Center, just north of Joliet.)
Voting rights laws vary widely among states. In Maine and Vermont, felons can cast a ballot while imprisoned, while a dozen other states require the formerly incarcerated to jump through administrative hurdles—such as a governor’s pardon or petition to a court—before they can vote again. In Delaware, anyone convicted of certain crimes, including murder and bribery, is permanently disenfranchised.
Illinois has one of the more liberal set of laws: all felons have their voting rights automatically restored when released from prison. In recent years, advocacy groups like Chicago Votes have also ramped up organizing in Cook County Jail, running voter registration drives within one of the largest detention facilities in the country. Last fall, then-Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill that would’ve turned Cook County Jail into a polling location for pretrial detainees. In a statement to the House, he argued that one particular section of the bill—which required the Department of Corrections and county jails to disseminate voter registration information to prisoners upon their release—exceeded the “legitimate role” of law enforcement personnel. It was written by now-Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton; a modified version, put forth by state Sen. Omar Aquino, sailed through the Senate in early April, and is now in a House committee.
But even if voting rights are secured for pretrial detainees and former felons, there’s still the problem of ensuring that people know how to exercise those rights. While it’s difficult to get exact data on how many formerly incarcerated people vote, a 2009 study by political scientist Michael V. Haselswerdt found that only about 5 percent of eligible ex-felons had voted in a 2005 election in New York, compared to 39 percent of the general population. One reason could be that those released from prison don’t know exactly how to exercise newly restored rights.
“Preventing someone from exercising their rights, or perpetuating a system where huge groups of people are unaware of their rights, can in itself be a statement about what voting rights are,” says Ami Gandhi, director of voting rights and civic empowerment at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, one of the organizations advocating for HB2541.
The new bill would create a civics education course designed for inmates about to be released from prison. Rivers says it’ll be nonpartisan, along the lines of an introductory political science text on government, and cover issues like voting registration and current affairs. “There’s a myth that people who are incarcerated . . . are politically disinterested,” Rivers says. “This would be promoting civic engagement, promoting folks’ reentry into society, and give them more of a sense that they have a stake.” (Aquino’s bill contains a similar provision—it would require the Illinois Department of Corrections to provide a voter registration application and voting information to anyone in custody eligible to vote.)
Importantly, the course would be taught mainly by other prisoners, who will have been trained by nonpartisan civics organizations. Gandhi notes that the idea for peer education was suggested by people with a criminal record who had input in writing the bill; they argued that it would make for less “preachy” classes. “Symbolically, it says a lot—it sends the message that civic engagement does not die [in prison],” says Rivers.
“It’s credibility for someone that’s coming from your own walk of life,” says Blackwell.
After it was filed by Rep. Sonya Harper, the bill moved through the House by a vote of 102-9 on April 10. In early May, it was unanimously passed by the Senate’s Criminal Law Committee. It now moves to the Senate floor. “I think part of the reason that there hasn’t been a whole lot of objection so far . . . is that this bill doesn’t ask for any new rights,” said Rivers. “We just want to help people exercise those rights when they get out.”
For his part, Blackwell hopes the program, if it comes into existence, will give people leaving prison the sense that they can meaningfully participate in the political process. “A lot of men and women come home after prison, it’s kind of hard [for them] to imagine that you have any semblance of power when you’re still on parole, or incarcerated. The only way you can start to help them is through the dialogue,” he says. “It’s people we come in contact with that’s incarcerated that may have never even left the confines of their neighborhood. We’re trying to get them to understand that it’s all about empowerment.” v
Update: HB2541 passed the Illinois Senate in a unanimous vote on May 23.