Formerly incarcerated Minnesotans preparing to vote for the first time
At the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis, a kind of election day pep talk was in the air.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that your vote doesn’t matter, and voting doesn’t matter,” declared one speaker. “Because your voice matters and your life matters.”
Lessons about a fundamental freedom: the right to vote.
“It’s really liberating, it’s actually restoring,” declares Tierre Caldwell, a formerly incarcerated felon, now a mentor with The Power of People Leadership Institute, a north Minneapolis nonprofit. “Being able to actually make someone feel more included, inclusive in society.”
With Election Day just over a week away, the Institute — which has been doing outreach work at prisons for nearly two decades — is helping formerly incarcerated people to navigate the voting process.
“I’m working my way through that, but this will be my first time voting,” says Donald Amos, who served 31 years in prison after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder.
The 65-year-old, now living in Fridley, was among dozens of incarcerated felons attending the workshop who face a sharp learning curve.
“I’m just doing research on the candidates,” Amos says. “I’m not really for just one party, the Republicans, or the Democrats. I want somebody who’s going to help me and help the people.”
Amos isn’t alone.
In March, Gov. Tim Walz signed the Felon Voting Rights Bill.
The Secretary of State’s Office says the new law means at least 55,000 people convicted of felonies in Minnesota will be able to vote immediately after they’re released from prison — no more waiting until after they finish probation or parole.
“I feel good. I know that I should have the right to vote. They say I’m a citizen of this country,” Amos says. “Without the right to vote or my other civil rights, I felt like a second-class citizen. Now with the right to vote, I’m working at other issues as well.”
Before now, some formerly incarcerated people had to wait for years to go to the polls.
Caldwell — who served an eight-year prison sentence on a first-degree assault charge — also had to serve three years on parole.
During that parole period, he was not allowed to vote.
“People already feel disenfranchised when they re-enter society,” he explains. “They’re already sentenced because they’re basically reminded of the worst mistake they made in their life, after they’ve already completed their sentence.”
The League of Women Voters Minnesota partnered with the Institute Saturday to answer questions on how to find a polling place, who’s on the ballot, and what documents are needed when going to the polls for the first time.
“You need to be who you say you are and you live where you say you live,” notes Sam Streukens, a League of Women Voters spokesperson. “I think people are just excited to cast their ballot and we’re just happy to be here and experience this joy of welcoming people into the political process.”
The Institute says 78 formerly incarcerated people participated in Saturday’s program.
Some of them told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they thought they’d never get a chance to vote in their lifetimes.
Among the biggest voter concerns they discussed were education, public safety, and taxes.
Several of the participants say they’re planning to go to the polls with friends as a kind of celebration.
“We re-humanize people but it’s also we restore people back to their human dignity by making people feel they’re part of society,” Caldwell explains. “When individuals engage in civic participation, it reduces recidivism — and they don’t re-offend because they feel they’re a part of society.”
“This will be my very first time voting — yes,” declares Adoniyah Israel.
He says he was incarcerated for nearly 25 years after he was found guilty of a second-degree murder charge.
Israel says he’s spent nearly half his life in prison.
He calls his first-ever vote this year a new beginning.
“Now I have a voice and I’ve been on this earth for 52 years,” Israel says. “I can feel a part of the county, state, and the country at large. I can have my voice heard, and that is a very powerful thing.”
You can find out more about The Power of People Leadership Institute here.