Illustration depicting a voter rights election concept with a collage of multicolored faces looking expectantly at a blue-green voting box and a hand placing a ballot into it.

OPINION | Why Voting Is So Critical for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated People

by Jim Chambers

After 22 years of incarceration, why am I so passionate about voting and politics?

There are many reasons, but I often think about my friend who found out that he had stage 4 lung cancer while imprisoned. Only a few people with terminal illnesses return home because the clemency process moves so slowly, and most incarcerated people don’t even know it is an option. I’ve seen many people locked in rooms on their deathbeds. It’s mortifying to see them go through that by themselves when I know they have families who want to take care of them. Luckily for my friend, the Seattle Clemency Project got him home in September of 2020, and he spent the holidays with his wife and kids before he passed away. 

Those are the things I’m never going to forget. There’s a lot of remorse I feel for all the people I left behind in prison, and I’m never gonna stop fighting for them. 

Being able to vote means that I have a voice in things that affect incarcerated people, like sentencing laws, living conditions inside, and reentry. Thanks to a new law in Washington, we now restore voting rights immediately when people return home from prison. On January 1 of this year, we returned a voice to more than 20,000 people like me who were on community supervision for a past felony. 

I became aware of the importance of voting after I was sentenced to 40 years for a nonviolent crime. Under a drug law change that happened two years after I was sentenced, I only would have served 13 years. 

While I was incarcerated, I started writing letters to legislators, testifying about sentencing issues and filing for clemency with the support of the Seattle Clemency Project. After years of work, we managed to get a bill dropped that made the drug law reforms of 2002 apply to people like me who had previously been sentenced to decades-long drug sentences. I received clemency and was released while the bill was working its way through the legislature. I was able to get resentenced under current drug law in 2021 once the bill was passed.

After a conviction, most of us lose more than people understand. There are so many things we can’t do when we return home, like volunteer at our kids’ school, find housing, or find a job. When we get formerly incarcerated people voting and doing the things that other people do, it makes us feel like we are really back and part of the community. 

I tried to register to vote when I first got out in 2021, but the new law did not go into effect until January 2022. I was chomping at the bit because I wanted so badly to be in the same realm as other citizens, to be able to say my voice mattered. I was super excited for the special election we had this year because that was my first time voting ever. I almost got emotional. It feels really good to know that I actually can put my ideals into play. 

I think a lot about how far removed these legislators are from where I was incarcerated. Very few lawmakers have even been inside a prison. For me, voting is about picking people who understand that the trauma that people go through in our communities is greater than most people ever realize. 

Most of us were victims first, and many have suffered in systems like the foster care system. There are laws on the books that are racially biased, over-sentencing Black men and other People of Color. Meanwhile, the people who make the rules don’t understand the impact of the systems they are creating and supporting.

Although most people in Washington are very supportive of voting rights restoration, it still took a huge effort to get the change we won this year. Some people have a fear of giving us back our voice because they are afraid of what we are going to say. If you give people a microphone, we will speak our truth.

Still, a lot of people with past convictions don’t understand the power that we have been given back. Now we have to do the education piece, telling people why to vote and how to vote.

And the fight is not finished — now that we’ve got the legwork done, we’re on our way to full restoration to people on the inside. Just because you commit a crime does not mean you aren’t part of the community anymore. Even though we have convictions, we are still citizens of Washington. We should have a voice in who sits on our kids’ school boards, who is making decisions as a prosecutor, and who is policing our communities.

If every person who was impacted by the legal system registered to vote and made their voice heard, it would wholly change the way people are treated on the inside, how people are treated at sentencing, how victims are treated in the community, and how people reenter their neighborhoods. The first thing the system does is separate us, offering no restorative practices or healing. If impacted people can come together, we can make a system that is fair for victims, impacted people, and all communities.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Jim Chambers is a formerly incarcerated activist, a credible messenger with the WA Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, and a support specialist for WELD Seattle.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Lightspring/

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