Askia Afrika-Ber
Askia Afrika-Ber Credit: Courtesy of Askia Afrika-Ber

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After the D.C. Council’s historic passage of the Restore the Vote Amendment Act that gave incarcerated people convicted of felonies the right to vote in 2020, I composed a brief missive, detailing my observations of the voter registration process for a D.C. prisoner here at USP Big Sandy in Martin County, Kentucky. I mailed a copy to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office.

In the letter, I thanked Mayor Bowser and the Council for restoring our right to vote and for the opportunity to make our collective voices heard. I also volunteered to help with any efforts to improve on prison voter education and registration and suggested plans for get-out-the-vote drives directed toward our families, friends, and returned citizens.

I requested information and materials that could assist me in educating myself and my fellow D.C. prisoners about the importance and value of exercising our new enfranchisement. Unfortunately, no one from Mayor Bowser’s office bothered to reply. 

In light of Bowser’s ill-conceived and misguided decision to veto the Revised Criminal Code Act, the silence from her office is not surprising to me as a prisoner from the nation’s capital.

I hear White politicians, law enforcement spokespeople, and right-wing media personalities advocating the tough-on-crime line. And when I hear Black elected officials like Mayor Bowser regurgitate the same rhetoric, I reflect back to Black activist Isaiah T. Montgomery, who argued that illiterate Black people should be denied the right to vote.

To add insult to injury, D.C.’s criminal code hasn’t been revised since 1901. At that time, Jim Crow laws were still in effect, the post-Civil War practice of “convict leasing,” which was essentially another form of slavery, was booming, and the NAACP had yet to be established. It seems to me that the people who wrote the 1901 D.C. criminal code did not have the best interest of the African American community in mind.

Now that we, as incarcerated people from D.C., can have a say in who our elected leaders are, maybe that will change. But first, we need some help.

The lack of political awareness and disorder among D.C. prisoners

Many Black prisoners are not, and have never been, politically savvy. Without the proper education on the process and the candidates, elections in prison will be reduced to the level of a high school popularity contest. That was the ugly reality I observed here at USP Big Sandy in 2020, the first time incarcerated felons were able to vote.

The majority of my fellow D.C. prisoners were not familiar with many of the candidates on the 2021 ballot other than the political heavies such as Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and former president and vice president Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Most incarcerated people had no knowledge of the local candidates.

D.C. prisoners who lived with me in the B2 housing unit at USP Big Sandy also had difficulty filling out the voter registration form. I assisted several prisoners after staff refused to answer their questions, and I discovered that quite a few of them do not know the last four digits of their social security numbers—another issue I had mentioned in my letter to the mayor’s office.

Unsurprisingly, D.C. prisoners (myself included) began to receive letters from the D.C. Board of Elections on Sept. 28, 2021, detailing three common mistakes on our voter registration applications.

1) Failure to include a D.C. address

2) Failure to sign and date

3) Failure to include a D.C. ID number or the last four digits of their social security number.

The first test run for many incarcerated D.C. voters didn’t run so smoothly. I felt nauseous and frustrated.

D.C. prisoners need reliable information on our elected representatives

It is imperative that we help educate every single incarcerated D.C. resident on the importance of voting and building a voting bloc to bring to the attention of our elected officials our deepest collective desire to build a new prison complex and to implement effective, humane, and scientifically researched policy on rehabilitation and incarceration.

I welcome anyone interested in working with me and More Than Our Crimes to build and find funding for a “Prison Voter Education Project” to produce a quarterly political pamphlet.

The packet should include: a history on the African American political journey in America and in D.C.; an explanation of how the political process works; unbiased information on the Democratic and Republican parties; and biographies and political positions of all candidates running in D.C. elections. The packet should also feature political essays and reports written by journalists and D.C. prisoners.

Along with information, we need organization.

It is also imperative that we begin hosting comprehensive political education workshops in our cell blocks and prison libraries. 

We must start organizing large- and small-scale “Washingtonian Homie Meetings” on the prison rec yards to discuss criminal justice reform and local politicians’ stances and track records with regard to our criminal justice reform agenda.

We have to focus our creative and intellectual energies on sowing the seeds of criminal justice reform throughout the U.S. Bureau of Prisons system and back home in D.C. The objective should be to organize a political action campaign and mobilize our families and communities to influence local elections.

There are about 2,100 D.C. prisoners in the BOP system. If each one of us can get at least five family members or friends willing to vote for a candidate of our choosing, that’s a voting bloc 10,500 strong! We are in a position to create a criminal justice system in our nation’s capital that actually rehabilitates its prisoners instead of simply warehousing them and returning them to our communities in worse shape than when they entered the prison system.

The Council has afforded us an opportunity with the Restore the Vote Act to directly affect change in our lives, our families, and our communities. We must act.

A call for reform and a few ideas

We, as D.C. prisoners, share the same experience in the systematically racist criminal justice system. Over-charged and over-sentenced, we are classic examples of modern-day, high-tech lynchings. We spend decades behind bars, fruitlessly searching for loopholes in our criminal cases, combing through hundreds of pages of trial transcripts, discovery material, and investigative files hoping to find that one constitutional violation that can change everything. 

But there is another viable option: Reform the racist systems and policies. That will take organization, research, and resources.

Here is my short list of ideas for anyone interested in cultivating a better and safer quality of life for all D.C. residents, including those who are incarcerated and will eventually return home:

1) D.C. councilmembers should visit BOP facilities to talk directly to their incarcerated constituents to learn about the destructive environment where we live and what can be done to better prepare us to come home.

2) Open lines of communication between religious, civic, and cultural leaders, and university students and incarcerated people from D.C. to develop ideas and methods for reducing violent crime.

3) Form a “Reconciliation Commission,” similar to the group that the late Desmond Tutu led after the fall of apartheid in South Africa.

Our current prison system, in which D.C. prisoners are housed in BOP facilities, does not encourage incarcerated people to pursue meaningful rehabilitation. Since 2001, when the Lorton Prison Complex closed, D.C. has shunned the responsibility of housing and rehabilitating its population of prisoners. We D.C. prisoners were banished from our beloved Chocolate City, and shipped hundreds of miles cross country to serve out our sentences in federal prisons.

In BOP facilities, D.C. prisoners are introduced to prison gang warfare. When D.C. prisoners collectively came to feds in 2001, all Chicago gangs/street organizations, such as the GDs, Vice Lords, P-Stones, and Latin Kings, put aside their petty differences and street beefs and agreed to a mutual alliance against D.C. guys. That dynamic still holds to this day. 

Over the years, some of the most violent prison riots and fatal knife fights have unfolded as a result of clashes between D.C. prisoners and active gang members from outside D.C. Just last year, two D.C. prisoners were murdered by gang members—men who would still be alive and possibly on the path to recovery had the D.C. government taken the time in the past 20 years to build their incarcerated residents a prison complex. There is no legitimate excuse the D.C. government can offer for its failure to create a safe environment where their prisoners can work on bettering themselves and where our incarcerated mothers and fathers can receive family visits on a weekly basis (rather than once or twice every two to three years).

Closer to home, it wasn’t until the January 6 defendants started raising grievances about the D.C. Jail’s unsanitary and inhumane conditions that I heard serious talk of building a new detention center. 

It is up to D.C.’s elected officials and incarcerated people to reimagine the purpose, effectiveness, and rules of incarceration and rehabilitation. Since our councilmembers have seen fit to restore our voting rights, the most coveted and practical lever to effect instant change, they must be open to our suggestions on effective rehabilitation and our transition from criminals to servants and pillars of our communities.

I am eager to start something politically productive and positive for me and my fellow incarcerated D.C. residents.

Askia Afrika-Ber was born and raised in Southeast D.C. and Prince George’s County and is serving his sentence in USP Big Sandy, a high-security prison in Kentucky. You can read more about him here. This column is produced in collaboration with More Than Our Crimes, a nonprofit dedicated to raising the voices of people locked in federal prisons across the country.