After prison the right to vote means 'way more' | KUOW News and Information

After prison the right to vote means 'way more'

Nov 1, 2016

You know how you get your ballot in the mail, and you throw it in with the pile of fall catalogs and bills? And you say to yourself: “Oh, yeah, voting. Yeah. Gotta get to that.”

Well, that's not what it's like for former prisoners like Susan Mason taking advantage of a change in state law. She anticipated her ballot this year.

"I waited anxiously for that," she said. "And when I got it, it was a Saturday, and I filled it out on a Saturday. And I mailed it that Saturday."

Mason is driven to vote this year because it's her first time. Back in 2002, she went to prison. And when she got out, she wasn't allowed to vote.

She’s not alone. America has more prisoners than any other country in the world, and even after they're freed, millions of these people can't vote.

In Mason’s case, she was convicted of theft to support a drug habit. "I found a drug that completely took me out," she said. "It was methamphetamine."

Susan Mason says, 'this idea that I am sentenced to a lifetime of unemployment - or sentenced to a lifetime of substandard housing - is preposterous to me.'
Credit Courtesy Susan Mason

Her crime was stealing people's mail.

"I totally was terrible at it -- I'm the worst criminal ever!" she said. "And I was caught and I was convicted by the feds. And I went to prison for it."

Mason served 15 months. She says going to prison actually saved her life because it helped her get off drugs.

But she wasn't completely free. With a criminal record it's hard to find a place to live or a good job.

"And so this idea that I am sentenced to a lifetime of unemployment - or sentenced to a lifetime of substandard housing - is preposterous to me," Mason said. "And I had no voice to change that."

But in 2009, Washington state restored the right to vote to people who have served their time and are no longer on parole. And Mason says now she has a chance to vote for candidates who will fight for her and people like her, "to lead a life that's better than what we've got going on now." 

Durell Green is also voting this year for the first time in his life. He was born in Tacoma and moved to Bremerton with his mom after his parents divorced. He describes a traumatic family life and serious money struggles at home.

"And ways to get money that were out of the box were introduced to me," he said. "And so I started doing those things. And I started robbing people."

He was 14. A few years later, he was convicted of armed robbery. "I ended up going to prison the same month that I turned 18," Green said.

That meant he never voted.

Green was released three years later, in 2005. And this year he plans to vote for the first time.

"I feel like a citizen again, like my rights are almost all the way restored," he said. "I can pretty much do everything anyone else can do except own a gun. So that kind of feels cool."

But what does it mean to him to be voting for the first time in 2016?

"There's no turning back now. You know it's a different level of responsibility," he said. "I take voting seriously - it's a right. And it's a right that can be taken away from you.

"And you know whenever you have something that’s been taken away, you learn how to appreciate it way more.”