What he asked me, as I sat there in my office glancing into my laptop, was whether I could do anything to help him get his civil rights back.
At first, I had no clue what he was talking about. The man, who sounded like he was in his 20s, made no sense at first when he said “civil rights.” Then a moment later, as he told me a little bit more, it all clicked.
Adam had gone online and read an article on Freeline Media, published on March 15, 2011, about an issue that rarely gets talked about, certainly not by politicians, and most likely either by civil rights activists or ACLU lawyers. The article was an interview with S. David Mitchell, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri School of Law, who was speaking out against a Florida regulation aimed at denying certain civil rights to a particular group — ex-felons.
Florida is one of several states that have a lengthy waiting period before felons released from prison can have their civil rights restored, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, serve in the military, and obtain certain occupational licenses.
In early 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet, sitting as Florida’s Executive Clemency Board, voted to toughen the process nonviolent felons need to go through to get their civil rights restored. It requires nonviolent felons who have completed their sentence, finished probation and made full restitution to undergo a five-year waiting period, then begin an application process for restoration of rights.
Adam had found my article online, and wanted to know if I could help him locate an agency that works with ex-felons to get their civil rights restored. I pointed him to Advocate4Justice, the non-profit agency with offices in Atlanta and Orlando, that lobbies to help ex-felons get their lives back on track, including their full civil rights.
He suddenly sounded animated and grateful, like a kid who was being taken to the toy store with the promise that he could pick out whatever he wanted. For a brief moment, my heart went out to him.
As families all over the country spent Wednesday rushing around, making last minute plans for tomorrow’s holiday, a lot of them, it can be presumed, have quite a bit to be thankful for: good health, a steady paycheck, a loving family, and a long list of other reasons.
Or maybe this won’t be a great day, for little reasons that we magnify into heftier significance than it’s worth: getting stuck in heavy traffic on the drive over to Grandma’s house, having to pretend you’re enjoying a badly overcooked turkey dinner, or feeling pangs of guilt later that night for all the overeating you did while the morning weight scale gives you dirty looks.
For this man Adam, though, life is on hold this Thanksgiving. He’s a convicted felon, and although he’s served his sentence and been released from prison, he still carries that stigma over his head. Every employer wants to know if he has ever been convicted of a felony. Doors shut in his face. It’s like he’s standing on the outside, looking in, and the front door is locked.
Convicted felons are not, by and large, a group that generates much sympathy in our society, with its If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime attitude. Once upon a time, I felt much the same way.
No more. This Freeline Media editor who has never been handed anything worse than a speeding ticket, has several friends who are convicted felons. Two served time for drug crimes, a third for a violent gun crime. They are all engaging, smart and focused, ready to turn their lives around, eager to re-establish themselves. We just don’t make it easy for them.
If our politicial leaders assume they’re making me and the rest of Central Florida safer by making it exceedingly difficult for my friends to find gainful employment, then they need a wake up call and reality check.
For some local activists, including state Sen.-elect Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, this is very much a political issue, one aimed at the disenfranchisement of African American men, who make up a high percentage of the Florida prison population, and who could be expected to vote Democrat in a state where Republicans like Scott are in charge.
Mitchell, in that March 2011 interview, agreed, and noted that Democrat Al Gore lost Florida – and the 2000 presidential race – to Republican George W. Bush by just 535 votes out of millions cast in the Sunshine State.
“Think about Florida in the 2000 election,” Mitchell said. “Think of the voters disenfranchised from that vote. They would have had a direct say in who the next president was.”
It’s a good point, one made even more salient this year when Scott reduced early vote hours from two weeks to one, angering civil rights activists who said that made it even harder for working class minorities to get to the polls. The fact that a surging turnout of African American and Latino voters helped President Obama carry Florida for a second time may have left Scott rethinking the wisdom of that move.
Activists like Thompson deserve a lot of credit for speaking out so strongly on an issue that doesn’t rank high in the public opinion polls — this is a real profile in courage. They’re doing it because this is the right thing to do, not because it’s a guaranteed winner on election day.
But this should not be an issue based solely on race. Adam is white, and of my three friends who are convicted felons, one is black and two are white. One is a woman, two are men. Two are straight, one is gay. One has a child to raise, the other two do not. They’re all creative, extroverted, outgoing.
Ex-felons come from every segment of society. And after doing what the courts and law enforcement asked them to do – complete their sentence – they deserve a chance at a fresh start free of the stigma of being someone no longer worthy of having certain civil rights to exercise. As Professor Mitchell noted, the policy is self-defeating since it makes it harder for ex-felons to get reintegrated into society.
“The state ignores the issue that during the time period after a person has been released from prison, it’s more difficult to find gainful employment and housing,” he said.
Since running that article, I get phone calls and emails all the time from ex-felons, desperate for help in making that often agonizing readjustment. One man wrote to me recently to say he is now 29, and at age 23 he got convicted of car theft in Illinois, and spent two and a half years in prison. He described the fear he experienced there in painfully graphic and chilling terms.
“It’s true about the things you think happen in prison, but I feel every man knows that going in,” he wrote to me. “I was put in the hole for a week. Pure darkness — no one could hear me scream. I’m not a big man so I had to do things. My ex-wife would visit me and ask if I had a husband.”
Now on the outside, struggling, they reach out to anyone they think can maybe, just maybe, give them a helping hand.
On Thanksgiving, you have to wonder: if we want them now to become fully productive citizens, why do we continue to make their post-prison years so difficult?
To learn more about Advocate4Justice and civil rights for ex-felons, log on toAdvocate4Justice.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.