Former Inmates Are Running for Office in 2020

by Daniel A. Rosen

When those who have been incarcerated run for elected office, they can speak with authority about prison reform. They bring credibility that others simply can’t. In 2020, more ex-inmates than ever are coming out of the shadows and running for office, viewing their time behind bars as an asset. They’re bringing new voices to state and national races across the country.

Tarra Simmons is one of those voices, running for a state government seat in Washington. She is like many others who found themselves addicted to opiates after a serious injury resulted in dependence on painkillers. Charges for drug dealing, theft, and weapons possession followed, leading to almost two years behind bars.

Being incarcerated is part of her story and her identity, and she’s using it as an asset. “I went to prison. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I understand how people end up there,” Simmons says. As lawmakers try to reform policing and justice, it’s vital to have that perspective represented in state capitals and in Congress.

Prison is not the only experience Simmons brings to the race. She was an ER nurse prior to her incarceration, and afterwards got a law degree and started a civil rights non-profit. She understands the public health, policing, and economic crises facing her community, and says she wants to “prevent [incarceration] from happening to begin with.”

Some states restrict former inmates from serving in government or holding public offices. Illinois, Alabama, West Virginia, and Delaware all deny or limit that privilege. The media may also focus solely on an ex-inmate’s record, as opposed to his or her whole platform. And fundraising for first-time candidates during a pandemic is difficult, with traditional activities like canvassing and rallies off-limits.

Despite these challenges, former inmates are finding ways to participate in the process. Keeda Haynes, a former public defender who served four years in federal prison, is running for Congress in Tennessee. First, she had to petition a court to restore her civil rights, a hurdle she knows many other felons face too. “This is an opportunity to change the narrative and have tough, hard conversations about barriers to reentry,” she said.

Former inmates can have trouble finding jobs or housing – or even life insurance – because of their felony records. Ex-inmates running for office understand that and can advocate for the restoration of rights. Angela Stanton-King is running for Congress as a Republican in Georgia’s 5th District. She supports restoring the right to vote for anyone with a felony on their record after prison, unlike some Republicans.

Voters have rarely heard from candidates who’ve experienced the criminal justice system firsthand. But with a newly invigorated conversation about justice reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it may be the right time for those perspectives. A majority of both Democratic and Republican voters say they’d more likely vote for someone who “supports criminal justice reform.”

The ongoing protests fueled by Floyd’s killing at the hands of police have laid bare the inequity of a justice system that more deeply impacts the poor and communities of color. Candidates who’ve experienced that divide firsthand may be better prepared to help write the laws affecting those under the control of the system. “You have a lot of well-intentioned advocates who are trying to push criminal justice reform,” said Simmons, “but they can’t know it as intimately as people who have survived it.”

Kevin Harris is running for a state seat in Detroit, after his experience serving on the outgoing representative’s staff. He finished a 14-year sentence in 2006. “One third of all Americans have some kind of criminal record. Almost every family has been touched by it,” he says. So now it’s more important than ever for candidates like him to “have a bigger bullhorn.”

The question now, says Haynes: are voters ready for Congressmen and women or state representatives with a felony record? Election day in 2020 will be a real litmus test of voters’ acceptance of a candidate’s criminal past. “I don’t think it’s going to be the deciding factor,” Haynes said. Voters may be more interested in what a candidate can do for their community going forward.

And regardless of the outcome, a candidate openly discussing a criminal past can be liberating to some. Many former inmates may “come out” sooner and share their mistakes, as office-seekers use their experience to improve their communities. Removing that stigma, says Kelly Olson, a civic organizer, “makes me realize our stories do matter.”

Sources: The Marshall Project, in partnership with Mother Jones. Originally written for Prison Legal News.

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