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October 15, 2004 - The San Jose Mercury News (CA)

Registration Drive Encourages Jail Inmates To Participate In Democracy

By Truong Phuoc Khanh, Mercury News

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

They are a voting bloc few politicians publicly court: drug addicts, drunken drivers, burglars and thieves.

But for the past few weeks, Bob Feldman, who oversees their rehabilitation, has been visiting hundreds of jailed San Jose inmates on a one-man voter registration drive.

After all, every vote counts in a democracy -- even the incarcerated's.

California law forbids voting by convicted felons who are in prison or on parole. But statewide, there are about 76,000 inmates in county jails, awaiting trial or sentencing, or serving time for misdemeanors, who are eligible to vote come Election Day.

The majority won't. Many don't know that they can; many don't care to.

That's where Feldman comes in.

Feldman, the programs manager for the Santa Clara County Department of Correction, has been meeting with selected groups of inmates at Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas.

His target audience is anyone already enrolled in a county substance abuse recovery program -- a sign to Feldman that they want to conquer their addiction and rejoin the community as productive citizens.

"We're not altruistic," Feldman said. "We want to reverse negative lifestyles that lead to reincarceration. We don't want them coming back here."

He tells the women and men who are trying to turn their lives around that life "outside" is rather boring. You go to work in the morning; you do laundry; you make dinner; you tuck your children into bed at night. And once every two or four years, you vote.

"This, in and of itself, is a small thing," Feldman said, "but small things add up." And each small political act, he said, "goes to the core of our democracy."

On Wednesday, Feldman visited a medium security housing unit at Elmwood where about 65 men were in the middle of a rehab class taught by Judy Lemke, a Milpitas Adult Education teacher.

"When Bob walked in, their faces lit up," Lemke said of the day Feldman informed them he was going to help them register.

"We can vote?" some asked, stunned.

"They have nothing," Lemke said, "and so any little piece that empowers them, changes them."

Each registration drive takes more than an hour and can be tedious. Feldman goes through the form, item by item, with inmates. For many, this will be their first election. He is peppered with questions: What should I put as my mailing address? What if I don't remember if I've registered before? Do I check Ms. or Mrs.?

The last time Lennie Carrillo voted, in 1980, the U.S. presidential race was between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. That was just before he went into prison, convicted for assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a firearm. He was 21 years old when he became a ward of the state and 31 when he left.

Twelve years later, Carrillo, 44, is back in jail for petty theft.

"Dumb, dumb, dumb," he said.

One day in June when he was drunk, he said, he stole some baseball cards from a convenience store, worth about $17, according to Carrillo.

His release date is Nov. 19, and he said he would not miss this election for anything.

"There are so many issues now," said Carrillo, who registered as a Democrat. "We have that war in Irag. We've got one president who wants to stay" and a candidate who talks about getting out. He supports President Bush because four years ago, the president promised "to bring morals back to the White House."

Carrillo likes that.

On the other side of the room was Gary Jones, doing time for drug offenses. Even though he didn't have his reading glasses, Jones, 53, carefully filled in the oval bubbles.

A few issues have captured this Vietnam veteran's attention: stem cell research (he supports); Indian gaming (he won't say); and, of course, the presidency (John Kerry).

Jones is going with Kerry even though he said he doesn't like switching commanders in chief in the middle of a war.

By the end of Wednesday's session, Feldman had 30 completed forms. Ballpoint pens given to inmates to use were collected and counted. One missing pen, Feldman explained, is one potential weapon.

Feldman delivers completed registration forms to election officials at the county registrar of voters, and picks up absentee ballots to bring back to the inmates, who are responsible for putting them in the mail. By Nov. 2, Feldman expects to have transformed 200 inmates into actual voters.

The percentage of inmates who vote is typically small, Bay Area jail administrators say. Voting rights activists and prisoner advocates say there is a widespread perception that anyone with a criminal record is stripped of the right to vote.

"The vast majority of people think a person incarcerated cannot vote," said Gretchen Newby, executive director of Friends Outside, a group founded to provide services to inmates, ex-offenders and their families.

While that is true for California's 163,000 prison inmates, any U.S. citizen over 18 who is not on parole is eligible to vote.

Inmates in Santa Clara, San Mateo and Alameda counties are usually handed a jail rules book, which has a paragraph on voting and instructions about how to fill out an inmate request form for a voter registration card from the county.

"Quite frankly," Feldman said, "I don't think I've ever seen one filled out."

The deadline to register to vote is Monday.

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