Norris Henderson doesn't blink. "This is familiar terrain," he says. "We've been here -- we done ate the baloney sandwiches; we've worn the shower slippers." On this afternoon in August, Henderson and his colleagues are climbing the cement stairway in the Old Parish Prison, where over the past 75 years feet like theirs have worn shallow grooves down the center of the steps.
Henderson, now 51, spent time here during his 20s, after he was arrested for murder and before he was shipped off to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for a stretch of nearly 28 years. In 1987, he and other inmates created the Angola Special Civics Project, which studied the power of participation in government. Although the Civics Project inmates couldn't themselves cast a ballot, they lobbied their legislators and encouraged their family members to vote. Henderson often boils down their philosophy to this: "You've got to be in the loop."
In 2003, Henderson was granted parole. He returned to New Orleans where, this spring, he launched a new group called Voice Of The Ex-offender, or VOTE. The group first focused on education: specifically, spreading the word that, in Louisiana, people with felony convictions can vote as soon as they're off parole or probation. Then, in August, VOTE initiated a voter-registration drive inside the Old Parish Prison and the cluster of surrounding buildings that make up Orleans Parish Prison.
The U.S. Department of Justice Statistics lists Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) as the ninth-largest jail in the country with an average daily population of 5,875 municipal, state and federal inmates. About half of those could be eligible to vote under Louisiana law, which only bars those under a current felony conviction. VOTE is starting smaller, focusing on pre-trial detainees -- people who have not yet been through trial and thus are eligible voters. By the end of their campaign, they'll have registered 701 detainees -- 100 percent of those eligible.
Results like that confirm that, within OPP, VOTE members are the perfect ambassadors. "We've been there and done everything that they're getting ready to do," says VOTE board member Randy Tucker, who was paroled last year after serving 25 years at Angola for armed robbery. As Tucker and the rest of the VOTE group walk through the prison, they emphasize the importance of this election. After all, the 2000 presidential race was decided by a few hundred votes in Florida, where many ex-felons were stricken from the voting rolls. "It was people like us that they took out of the loop," says Henderson, speaking with a group of men in orange jumpsuits.
Inmate interest in this election has ramped up since last fall, when 30-year Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti left to become the state's attorney general. On Nov. 2, the place locals call "Foti's jail" will change hands, and inmates want a say in that decision.
Other groups also have a stake in that decision, namely the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, which in August issued a nine-point platform for reform. Among other things, the coalition's platform requires improved medical and mental-health services, proper access to a law library and legal counsel, and expanded educational programs. Both of the runoff candidates, Marlin Gusman and Warren Riley, have embraced the platform, with Gusman endorsing it in its entirety and Riley giving the nod to eight of nine points.
Anyone who's spent time in OPP knows the urgency for reform first-hand, says VOTE board member Blair Boutte. "We can talk about how unfair the judicial system is," Boutte tells inmates. "We can scream about the substandard jail facilities and our lack of access to legal representation."
But without the vote, all that talking means nothing, he says. "Until you reach out and grab the ballot and make it a tool to fight against these injustices, you have no right to complain."
"IT'S RARE THAT A JAIL or an outside organization helps inmates to vote," says Marc Mauer, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, which has published several reports about disenfranchised voters and one about successful jail-based voter-registration efforts.
One of those efforts is based in Cleveland, Ohio, where Molly Wieser does year-round registration through the Racial Fairness Project. In Cleveland, she says, the Board of Elections carries the ballots into the local jail. "They treat it like a polling place, basically, like a nursing home," she explains.
Wieser has partnered with the local League of Women Voters, which supplies information about the candidates to an eager audience. "Inmates read that stuff front to back -- I don't know anyone who pays closer attention before they vote."
Guards have mixed reactions to her work, she says. "A few say, Why are you bothering?' But most would rather see the inmates motivated and doing something productive. They see the positives of somebody feeling like a citizen."
In the nation's fifth-largest jail -- the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center -- vocational program director John Lieb also conducts year-round registration. "I do my little thing by 10 registrations here, 15 there, and make sure your mom registers, make sure your girlfriend registers,'" says Lieb.
It's not always as easy as it sounds, says Malik Aziz, who works with Lieb through the Ex-Offenders Association of Pennsylvania. Currently, Aziz says, they are experiencing problems all over Pennsylvania, as voter-registration drives attempt to get into county jails. Part of it has less to do with law than attitude, he says. "If a person is sitting in a prison, trying to vote absentee, a lot of people say, Why should they vote? They're incarcerated.'"
Norris Henderson can relate to the delays and frustrations. The inmates registered by VOTE didn't vote in September after Orleans Parish Registrar Louis Keller informed Henderson that the absentee-ballot applications had to be accompanied by certification that each applicant was not a felon, certification that Sheriff William Hunter couldn't provide in time.
By October, many of the 701 detainees had either been released or convicted. But 137 voters were still eligible, and so Henderson and his colleagues once again moved through the prison, filling out absentee-ballot applications.
Then last week, Keller rejected 56 of those applicants, citing state law requiring new voters who had registered by mail to vote in person at a poll with an ID. "We are here to register each and every voter we can," Keller says, but, he adds, he must also heed the law as interpreted to him by the secretary of state. Initially, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) was looking at ways to challenge the state's rejection of the 56 applications, but they won't be able to do it in time for this election, says LDF associate counsel Alaina Beverly.
At the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, Lieb says, voting is just one part of the strategy. Several years ago, he initiated a inmate-education program that he calls Civics 101. "We teach the basic types of government -- state, city, federal, judicial, executive. What America's all about, basically."
Not everyone is thrilled about registering to vote, Lieb says, but he urges them to do it anyway. "You may think the system sucks," he tells them, "But register now and start to look at the system in another way." He also tells them that their registration can also help their home neighborhood, by showing another registered voter in that community. "If a politician has 100 people registered in one part of his district and he sees 200 more people registering there, that's a wakeup call," Lieb contends. "It makes him listen a little closer."
VOTE board member Blair Boutte, who has been active in politics since his release 13 years ago, believes that efforts like Lieb's could give a boost to neighborhoods most affected by high incarceration rates. "There's a vote count after every election -- every ward, every precinct," he says. Politicians are keenly aware of vote-rich and vote-poor precincts. "So many of our neighborhoods are downtrodden, but they're overlooked because they don't produce a lot of votes," says Boutte.
In the near future, says VOTE board member Gregory Holmes, they hope to see someone like Lieb working from behind the walls of OPP. Holmes, like many of the VOTE members, is an alumnus of the Angola civics project. That project, like Lieb's, is successful because of one thing. "It encourages people to use their mind," says Holmes.
Several guards walk ahead of the VOTE group, carrying a long folding table and four chairs. At the top floor, they stop in front of a large aqua door painted with a salmon-colored A4. They unfold the table, put the chairs behind it, and step back. VOTE members set down clipboards filled with voter-registration applications and sit facing the big door.
This morning, one inmate nearly opted out of registration because he couldn't read. To avoid a similar situation, VOTE members now verbally ask inmates for information, then hand over the form for a signature.
A series of doors clank and the first four inmates walk out. VOTE board member Earl Truvia, exonerated last year after serving 27 years at Angola for murder, recognizes one guy in a light-blue OPP shirt. He asks about his family, then begins filling out the form -- name, home address, mother's maiden name. Next to Truvia, Henderson asks the same questions to another inmate in a gray shirt.
Each inmate stumbles at a question that will prove to stymie registrants all day. "What party -- Democrat, Republican, or Independent?" asks Henderson. He gets a blank look. Henderson explains how Ronald Reagan and George Bush are Republicans, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are Democrats. The inmate nods his head. "Put me with my man Bill," he says.
The VOTE group moves quickly down to the ground floor of the A wing. In the other three corners, teams of VOTE members are moving down the B, C and D wings. They meet up and decide to hit a few tiers of Templeman I, where the group of VOTE workers speak to an entire tier of inmates, then pair off to do registration. That's when familiar faces say hello. "You know who I am," says one inmate. "I'm Phyllis' son, Goldie's partner." Henderson, a longtime coach at Angola, seems to have someone from his teams on every tier. But there's only time for a brief hello -- the focus is on completing this registration quickly.
As one tier files out, Blair Boutte looks at his watch. "It's 4:10," he says. "Let's get one more tier before chow, lieutenant."
All of the VOTE members can look at a clock and recite what's going on at Angola and what's going on here. They also know that no one interrupts two activities -- count and chow.
That experience clearly earns them respect with both the guards and the inmates, who nod their heads as the VOTE members speak. "If you ain't going to listen to anybody, listen to your own," says Boutte, who spent two years and nine months here in the 1980s before transferring to another facility.
When the last Templeman I tier is finished, guards escort the group to central lockup, where they can collect their IDs and cell phones. Tomorrow, they'll return early in the morning to visit the House of Detention and a few other buildings.
On the way out, a group of men in blue jumpsuits catch the eye of VOTE member Renard Thomas on the walk out. He stops to explain their plan to them. "Spread the word," he says, and they nod and wave.
Soon, those same guys will soon be moving through the prison, distributing the evening sandwich. Word of VOTE's project will travel with them. "We got a better phone system than the sheriff does," says Thomas.
RANDY TUCKER SAYS THAT EVERY DAY, he sets out to prove that the parole board did the right thing when they granted him parole from his armed-robbery sentence in December.
Tucker and his VOTE colleague Gregory Holmes are currently out of Angola thanks to legislation they proposed while in the Angola Special Civics Project. Tucker fell under the new "45-20" law, which allows parole for inmates who are over 45 and have served 20 years. Holmes, who was serving life on an intent-to-distribute heroin charge, fit into the sentencing reform bill known as Senate Bill 239, passed during the 2001 session. The bill which abolished Louisiana's mandatory minimums for drug crimes and restored parole for a range of crime including heroin distribution, which had previously merited a life sentence.
Both men currently work as paralegals, going in and out of the courtrooms where they were originally sentenced. "I haven't introduced myself yet," says Tucker, emphasizing that Judge Frank Marullo did the right thing in sentencing him. "I was the cause of what happened to me," he says. "Every mother thinks that their kids' friends are to blame for what they do, and those mothers had me right. I was an instigator, a leader."
Like Norris Henderson, Holmes isn't able to vote yet, because he's still on parole until 2008. He doesn't let that bother him. "If we can't, we're going to encourage every single other person to vote," he says.
Tucker's parole extends until 2039, which means that he won't be able to vote until he's 82 years old.
"The insurance companies project years of existence somewhere around 72.3 years," he says, "so I'll probably be dead before I have the right to vote. But I find a real joy in the process."