I am a 30-year-old American citizen, born in the U.S., and I have never been able to legally vote.

In 2003, I was convicted of second-degree murder at the age of 17 and given a 30-year sentence — 20 to be served in prison, and 10 to be served on parole.

Because of this, I will not be able to legally vote until 2033. By that time I will be 47, with innumerable political decisions having been made that affect my life, and I will not have had a say in any of them.

This is not a singular experience, but a sad reality for millions of people in the U.S. and tens of thousands of Minnesotans. Felons are the only disenfranchised group of citizens in the U.S.

Elected officials make decisions every year that affect our lives and our communities in profound ways. But when incarcerated men and women finish their prison terms and return to the community, we are left out of the process.

This is especially damaging to inner-city communities, where the largest portion of felons lives. These communities effectively have less political influence because fewer people can vote. Therefore, politicians do not have to spend a lot of time and energy focusing on these communities. This leads to the social neglect and economic abandonment that work together to breed an environment that is essentially a pipeline back to prison for so many.

Released prisoners are expected to get a job, obey the law and parole stipulations, and pay taxes. Yet we are not allowed a voice in the political process. By denying people on parole the right to vote, society is sending the message that we don’t matter. If a released prisoner develops that same mind-set — seeing himself as a castoff, set apart from society — the disconnect will make it that much easier to reoffend.

Beyond this, there are also policy decisions that impact the lives of felons directly and uniquely — like whether to include questions about felony history on job applications, corrections and supervision spending, and sentencing reform. Being that it is our lives — not to mention the lives of our families — that are most affected by those decisions, we should have a voice in such matters.

In February, I was lucky enough to be part of the second annual BRIDGE workshop at Lino Lakes prison. For a full day, prisoners, along with community activists, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, and some members of the Minnesota Legislature came together to discuss the realities of incarceration and the trials prisoners face upon release. The theme for the day was “transforming the whole human being.”

One of my big takeaways from the event was that true change cannot come unless a person has a true transformation — and true transformation cannot happen unless there is full restoration.

On May 1, the Second Prison Project hosted 5K runs at Concordia University, Lino Lakes prison, Stillwater prison and Shakopee women’s prison. There were over 1,000 people running to raise awareness about America’s “second prison.” This is not a prison of physical confinement, but one of social confinement. It is a confinement not with bars, but within rules that allow felons to be back in society, but not part of society.

The denial of voting rights to millions across the country is one of the many barriers locking us in the second prison.

The goal of our criminal justice system should not simply be to punish, deter, correct or reform — it should be to restore. Restoration should first be made to victims of crime, who by and large are left to fend for themselves in our current criminal justice system.

Second, felons should be restored back to their communities. This means giving us a voice in the political process that affects our communities.

All of the re-entry programs and resources offered by the Department of Corrections encourage prisoners to reintegrate into society through family and community involvement. Many of us spend years in prison working to develop a mind-set of change, becoming socially aware and realizing the harm we have caused to our victims, our families, and our communities. We strive to become ready for a full integration back into society.

But as long as felons are denied voting rights, full restoration cannot take place.

 

Matthew Moeller is an inmate at Minnesota Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes.