Charles Thornton. Photo by Gaspard LeDem.

Voting rights were the last thing on Charles Thornton’s mind in March of 1990, when he was released from the Lorton Correctional Complex for the third time. He had spent most of his 20s in and out of the criminal justice system, racking up a series of drug-related felony and misdemeanor charges. Back then, his biggest concern was that he’d somehow end up in prison again.

“I wasn’t very aware and conscious of politics in community and society, and the role that politics and voting played,” he says. “My conscious level was nowhere on that radar.”

Thornton would return to correctional facilities dozens of times after his March 1990 release, but never to serve a sentence. Instead, the third-generation Washingtonian kicked his drug addiction and started helping inmates exercise their right to vote. “I’m awake now,” he says.

He’s a pillar of a tightly knit community of D.C. advocates pushing for criminal justice reform, working as a special assistant for the Mayor’s Office of Human Rights and chairing the Corrections Information Council, an independent watchdog that monitors the many facilities where D.C. residents are incarcerated.

During the past three decades, Thornton has organized several elections at the D.C. Jail, a short-term correctional facility run by the D.C. Department of Corrections. At this point, the voting process there is a well-oiled machine.

But this year, he’s up against a new challenge. Along with monitoring the election at the jail, he needs to ensure that D.C. residents serving felony sentences in more than 100 federal prisons around the country get their chance to vote, too. 

Until recently, only people serving misdemeanors or awaiting trial at D.C. Jail could vote, while those serving felony sentences had their voting rights restored upon release from prison. But in July, D.C. passed emergency legislation extending voting rights to people serving felony sentences, joining just two states—Maine and Vermont—that never took that right away.

On paper, the Restore the Vote Amendment Act re-enfranchised thousands of Washingtonians in federal institutions. But whether it will be enforced depends largely on the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ willingness to cooperate with local authorities like the D.C. Board of Elections. As Thornton puts it, “we can put a process in place, but to ensure that it’s followed by BOP is a whole other animal.”

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The Corrections Information Council estimates there are currently about 4,500 D.C. residents in federal custody, but keeping track of them is not an easy task. Prisoners are regularly shuffled from one facility to another, and coronavirus lockdowns have limited the amount of contact they have with the outside world.

So far, DCBOE has sent out 2,400 voter registration forms to prisoners in the federal system, but it’s not entirely clear how many made it to their destination.

“It’s a very complicated process,” says Nick Jacobs, a spokesperson for DCBOE. 

The BOP says it notified D.C. residents of their newfound eligibility to vote on three separate occasions via its internal emailing system, sending out voting instructions and printable registration forms. 

But the agency has declined to share some prisoner contact information with DCBOE. “We’re working through those details,” says Jacobs. “We can’t automatically get [that information].”

The BOP says sharing the information without prisoner consent would constitute a violation of federal privacy laws since DCBOE isn’t a law enforcement agency, but some local officials aren’t buying it. Last month, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton expressed concern about the BOP’s “apparent lack of cooperation” with D.C. authorities, urging the agency to release the prisoner data. “There is no reason the names and locations of inmates from D.C. should not be provided to BOE,” Norton wrote in a letter to BOP Director Michael Carvajal.

But the BOP denies any wrongdoing. “The BOP continues to make D.C. voter registration information and mailing materials available to all D.C. inmates,” said Ken Hyle, assistant director of the BOP, in a response to Norton’s letter.

Despite the complications, DCBOE says it has successfully registered about 400 federal prisoners, or roughly 9 percent of D.C. residents in federal custody. A number of applications, however, have been turned down due to errors in the forms. Part of the problem is that registering to vote in the District requires a valid D.C. address, something many prisoners no longer have, particularly if they’re been serving long sentences. Additionally, first-time voters must provide proof of residence, like a utility bill or unexpired identification card. 

“If you’ve been in federal prison for 10 years, how are you going to do that?” Jacobs asks. 

One possible workaround is to register prisoners at their former address, but whether DCBOE will allow it is still up in the air. “That’s the critical element,” he says.

In the meantime, Jacobs says DCBOE is drawing up a memorandum of understanding with the BOP. The non-binding agreement would lay the legal groundwork for cooperation between the agencies.

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The struggle to ensure incarcerated people can vote this November is yet another episode in the District’s long fight to acquire equal voting rights for its citizens in the absence of statehood. While the 50 states are in charge of their own prisoners and facilities, the federal government has, for more than two decades, had jurisdiction over people in D.C. who have to serve prison time, even if they haven’t committed federal offenses.

Once convicted and sentenced, these individuals are transferred to any of the 122 federal prisons scattered across the country. And while many serve sentences somewhat close by—the nearest federal prison for men is a roughly two-and-a-half hour drive away in Cumberland, Md., and the nearest BOP facility that houses women is roughly three-and-a-half hours away in Preston County, W.V.—some end up thousands of miles from home, in Arizona or California.

The unusual arrangement dates back to the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997, which ordered the closure of the Lorton Correctional Complex, where D.C. residents served sentences for most of the 20th century and where Thornton was held for a cumulative ten years. Washingtonians who were subsequently convicted of crimes were placed in the custody of the BOP. 

The controversial law was meant to alleviate a lingering economic crisis that had left a $722 million gap in the District’s budget. By shifting some of D.C.’s administrative responsibilities, like running prisons and courts, to the federal government, Congress hoped to get the District’s finances back on track.

From a financial perspective, the Revitalization Act was a success: It allowed D.C. to balance its budget and sparked a new era of economic growth. But many Washingtonians still see it as a dark spot in D.C. history, a setback in the District’s quest for self-governance and criminal justice reform.

“I think it was one of the worst bargains the District ever made, to give up and lose such control of our [criminal justice] system,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen

Allen says he has little faith the BOP will work to ensure D.C. residents in the federal system can vote this year. “They have zero political interest in implementing this pre-election,” he says. “If they had the real intent, they would go and make sure that every single D.C. resident has the paperwork they need. “

He acknowledges the Restore the Vote Amendment Act is difficult to enforce. “Admittedly, some of this is aspirational,” he says. “We don’t have the ability to force the Bureau of Prisons to ensure these rights are protected, but we’ll work with them.”

On Oct. 4, the Council unanimously voted to make the Restore the Vote Amendment Act permanent, adding a provision to make the DOC an automatic voter registration agency. Moving forward, anyone admitted to DOC will be registered to vote unless they opt out. The same system is already in place at some D.C. agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles.

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As a returning citizen, Thornton knows that giving prisoners the opportunity to vote doesn’t guarantee they’ll show up on Election Day. In the last three decades, much of his work has focused on educating currently and formerly incarcerated people about their civic duties and responsibilities, a process he says demands time and patience. 

Many of these individuals haven’t had a chance to engage in the electoral process or to decide what it means to them, Thornton explains. “We’re talking about, in a lot of cases, people who haven’t even thought about politics—there’s been no formal education whatsoever.”

Some see voting as counterproductive, as a form of participation in the same machinery that keeps them locked up. “They feel the system on their necks,” Thornton says. “They feel that their lives have been adversely impacted by the system, and now you’re talking about getting involved in it.”

When he was still fresh out of prison and rehab, Thornton’s work as a volunteer at the D.C. Jail became the cornerstone of his own recovery process. “I was bitten with that bug, and I took it and ran with it,” he says.

One of his proudest achievements remains an election he organized at the D.C. Jail for the 2008 presidential race. “That was big for me,” he says. It was a historic year—Barack Obama, the first Black Democratic presidential nominee in U.S. history, was generating a whole lot of buzz inside jail walls.

Still, the turnout beat Thornton’s expectations, and he says it was the outreach work that made the difference. Leading up to Election Day, he had taken every possible opportunity to bring up voting rights with inmates, engaging them at the jail’s chapel and during counseling sessions on substance abuse.

“From start to finish, we put a lot of work into educating the individuals in the jail,” he says. “We had gotten the access that we needed to be able to do the work to get those guys involved and get them to want to participate.”

Since then, voter turnout has fluctuated at the D.C. Jail. In 2016, 238 inmates (about 19 percent of the jail’s average daily population that year) voted. In 2018, only about half of that number showed up.

But numbers aside, Thornton says teaching prisoners about voting rights is always worth the effort. “You have some folks who, it hits a light for them. And they get involved while incarcerated.”

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At the D.C. Jail, many eligible voters, including some people who are temporarily housed there so they can appear in D.C. court, have already cast their ballots.

When Joel Castón’s absentee ballot finally got to his cellblock at the D.C. Jail earlier this month, he was a bit nervous to fill it out. “It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be,” he says. “I think it was more the buildup of being able to do something I yearned to do for a long time.”

For the past 26 years, Castón has been serving a life sentence for a felony he committed as a minor. The D.C. native has bounced around the federal prison system “like pingpong,” spending time in 16 different facilities, some as far away as Oklahoma.

But a landmark bill the D.C. Council passed in 2016 gave him a new lease on life. The Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act gives inmates who committed a violent offense before their 18th birthday and have served 15 years in prison the opportunity to have their sentences reevaluated and reduced.

As a result, Castón was transferred back to the D.C. Jail from a federal facility in West Virginia so a judge could re-examine his sentence. Today, there’s still no verdict on his release, but Castón says he’s grateful to be getting a second chance, and well aware of the role politics played in giving him that opportunity. 

“If it wasn’t for that reform, me and my colleagues know I wouldn’t have a meaningful argument to regain my freedom,” he says. “The only way I could have this hope is because the political process went forward.”

Though this election marks his first time casting a ballot, Castón has long been an advocate for voting rights and educated his peers on their importance. “When you are conscious of the fact that you are detained, you become aware of the political system,” he says. “And along with that awareness, you begin to build a desire to want to participate.”

Some are indifferent, but Castón says people serving life sentences usually understand the potential that voting has to turn lives around. “We think that we are outside of these things, but once you realize that you have a direct impact on your living conditions, once that lightbulb goes off, people begin to fall in line immediately.” 

Getting transferred back to the D.C. Jail, near his mother, who he calls his “queen,” has been a huge relief for Castón. While in distant federal prisons, he had given up on visits, knowing they would be too costly for his family. “I just pretty much wrote it off, out of my mind.”

As a native Washingtonian, he’s proud of the District for allowing people convicted of felonies to vote. “What happens in this city sets the standard for the nation,” he says. “I hope it can be used as a stimulus to move the tide in other jurisdictions.”

In the meantime, he’s just glad that he finally got to exercise his rights. “I don’t want to sound cliché here,” he says, “but it was sort of like a dream come true.”

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Advocates say the disenfranchisement of incarcerated people is rooted in racist laws that once sought to bar minorities from voting, a relic of America’s Jim Crow past.

“It was an effort to maintain political power,” says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Today, laws that prohibit currently and formerly incarcerated people from voting continue to disproportionately affect Black Americans. According to the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based advocacy group, more than 7 percent of African American adults were unable to vote in 2016 due to a felony conviction, compared to just 1.8 percent of people who aren’t Black.

In D.C., the restoration of voting rights will be most deeply felt in the Black community, which has long suffered from high incarceration rates. At the DOC, nearly 9 in 10 men are African American, while the District’s overall population is only 45 percent Black, according to a recent report.

It remains to be seen whether this newly enfranchised group will constitute a voting block powerful enough to tip D.C.’s local elections. Still, advocates say the Restore the Vote Amendment Act is about more than political outcomes.

“Whether the outcome of an election changes or not, the idea is that every person, regardless of any act or conduct that led to them being incarcerated, is valued by the city,” says Smith.

Research indicates that allowing returning citizens to participate in civic life makes it easier for them to reintegrate into society. “I think the consequences are actually very deep in terms of keeping people engaged in their communities, and to give people that connection and stake in their city,” Smith says.

For Thornton, voting rights were a source of empowerment when he returned from prison. “That was all part of the unraveling, and getting back to being human and getting back to being a citizen and getting back to be a part of society.”