Out of Prison, Heading to the Polls

Can ex-offenders create an effective voting bloc?

I got my GED in prison,” explains Tony Marshall, who was released in 2011. “I got a food and sanitation license. I even got a few college credits.” Four years later, Marshall is still out of work. “It’s a catch-22,” he said.

Marshall’s situation is common among ex-offenders. Perhaps the most devastating consequence of the modern American penal system has been its failure to prevent repeat offenses, entangling offenders in a seemingly endless feedback loop between freedom and incarceration. For those fresh out of prison, like Marshall, a secure job is hard to find, whether it has been four days or four decades since their release.

Teamwork Englewood is a community center that provides support to ex-offenders seeking a job. “[The prison workers] usually just give each of them ten dollars and put them on a bus or something,” said Johnny, a case manager at Teamwork Englewood who declined to give his last name. “What they need is employment, housing, and family support. How much can you do with ten dollars?” But opportunities are scarce, as government programs that facilitate ex-offenders’ reentry into the community mainly provide resources for job seeking, but not the jobs themselves.

Some ex-convicts have started to turn to the electoral system in the hopes of producing change. Illinois is one of only fifteen states and the District of Columbia to automatically restore every prisoner’s right to vote upon release, including that of the nearly 68,000 people released from the state prison system between December of 2014 and December of 2015. Yet the population of ex-offenders remains a vast, underrepresented demographic in the city of Chicago—enfranchised, but dispersed and unable to consolidate power. That gap between opportunity and representation is reflected in the ambitions of Ziff Sistrunk, an Englewood resident and ex-offender who says his goal is to organize Chicago’s formerly incarcerated into a cohesive voting bloc to influence the mayoral and aldermanic run-offs on April 7.

Were the city to provide more job openings specifically for “hard-to-place” individuals, Sistrunk says the promise of stability would prove more attractive than the allure of drugs and crime. Should his plan materialize, Sistrunk’s agenda would involve pushing for more concrete opportunities for ex-offenders in addition to those the city already offers, placing them in jobs on construction sites, in the Parks Department, and in schools.

Organizing a group as dynamic and transient as Chicago’s ex-offender community is a tough task, and Sistrunk’s goal of bringing together men and women from across all fifty wards is an ambitious one. But as criticisms of the criminal justice system reach a peak nationwide, it may be the moment for a movement like the one he envisions.

Two weeks before the run-off, Sistrunk was struggling to mobilize his target population. Yet he still has national designs for Greenslate, his fledgling organization, foreseeing a presence in states across the Midwest and an impact on the presidential election of 2016.

Ultimately, whether a movement takes shape in the coming weeks and years may rest not just on the ability of ex-offenders to organize, but on how much faith the demographic places in municipal government. “I follow all the elections. The aldermen say they’ll help you. You put them in office, they don’t help you,” Marshall lamented. “It’s an honor and privilege [to vote], but things don’t change.”

Julie Wu contributed reporting.

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