“I didn’t have to feel stigmatized.”
In the 2020 general election, Aldo Romero voted for the first time in about 25 years. He recently became eligible to vote again because he came off of parole after serving a sentence in prison. He had to wait until he was off parole, but with the passage of Proposition 17, people on parole for felony convictions will now be able to vote.
“To me, it meant that I could be a part of my community again, that I was actually free, that I didn’t have to feel stigmatized,” Romero said.
The passing of Proposition 17 now means that the barrier to voting in California will be if one is currently in prison (many people who are in jail, not prison can currently vote). The proposition passed with a pretty hefty margin, 58% of the vote.
Romero said he felt this time voting was different compared to earlier instances because he took the time to research all the issues that were coming up and understand them.
He worked on the Proposition 17 campaign by setting up paperwork to speak with representatives, going to the Capitol and working with other groups like the NAACP and the ACLU. Currently, he is a life coach in the Sacramento area with the Anti Recidivism Coalition.
“I felt guilty.”
Esteban Núñez was also previously on parole. He worked on the Proposition 17 campaign and has been in policy work for years now. After being released from prison on April 2016, he has gone on to be the Director of Advocacy and Community Organizing with the Anti Recidivism Coalition (ARC).
When he left prison, he was planning on finishing his studies to become a mechanical engineer. A friend from the ARC came to offer him a position with their new Sacramento office. At first, he said no, but he later changed his mind.
“I felt guilty,” Núñez said. “I think I felt a sense of survivor’s guilt that I had left so many people behind that were in similar circumstances such as myself but didn’t necessarily have anybody on the outside fighting for them or being their voice or even trying to bring them hope.”
With the organization, he started off working with juveniles in detention and never thought he’d be doing policy work. But, like earlier, he realized that it was a great way to inspire others with hope. When he was inside prison, he spent a lot of time reading self-help books and talking with his mom and he knows not everyone had those opportunities.
“Being able to partake in civic advocacy was a way to kind of make us feel empowered, make us feel like we were contributing in some form or fashion,” he said. “Maybe it wasn’t casting a vote, but it was at least sharing our stories in a way that would further the criminal justice reform to bring hope to those, a lot of them were lost in the abyss, so to speak.”
When he was preparing to leave prison, he was talking to his parole officer and when the officer asked him what he wanted to do after he left, he mentioned wanting to register to vote. He was then informed that he wouldn’t be able to do that at first.
“I always compare it to moving to a new neighborhood. You know, if you were to move into a new neighborhood and you were greeted with baked goods by your neighbors…you’re going to feel like you’re a part of that neighborhood,” Núñez said. “If you move into a new neighborhood and people are throwing things at you and cursing at you, you’re not going to feel welcome.”
Núñez just voted in his first presidential election in 2020. He said it meant that he had a stake in the future and partook in history.
“It felt like I was a human being again,” he said. “It felt like I was on the same playing field as everybody else and it finally felt like all of the hardships that I had endured were offset by my voice and my voice really just being at the ballot.”
Both Romero and Núñez believe that people currently in prison should be able to vote. Currently, two states allow that: Maine and Vermont. Previously, Núñez worked on a campaign to get a measure on the ballot that would include restoring those voting rights, but they couldn’t get enough signatures. Still he believes it could happen in the future.
“Allowing people to vote is one of the most fundamental ways of restoring dignity to people,” Núñez said. “I would say that we are seeing a shift in how we treat people who have done harm to their community.”
“I got my life together.”
Dwayne, who served a 32 year term in prison, has been out of prison for two years. He’s still on parole so Proposition 17 has now restored his right to vote, something he fully plans on taking advantage of next election.
“I respect the power of voting even though it’s not a lot of power, it’s some power,” Dwayne said.
He leans to the side of the Democrats and would have liked to have been able to vote to get Trump out of office. Nevertheless, he believes the real power is in local politics.
“I’m not a political science major, but I do get the basics of who has the real power in America and those are the people who actually have the power to vote in policies and laws and change laws,” he said.
Dwayne now works as an alcohol and drug counselor after being an addict for many years. He’s been sober for ten years and feels like he’s regained his humanity.
“I got my life together,” he said. “I believe in second chances…and I believe that if a person, whomever he or she may be, is in their right frame of mind, then a lot of crime will decrease.”
His current goal is to open up an alcohol and drug counseling center exclusively for the deaf and he’s taking an American Sign Language course to better be able to communicate with the people he wants to help.
“I would be frightened if they had the power to vote.”
Despite still being on parole David Barnhill disagrees with the passage of Proposition 17 and he also doesn’t agree with some other people who were formally on parole who believe that those who are currently in prison should be able to vote.
“If I’m honest, I wouldn’t want the people that are so anti-government and community and law enforcement [to vote]. I would be frightened if they had the power to vote,” he said. “I had a lot of time to do that work to change my mindset that a lot of guys that are coming out of prison, they didn’t make any significant changes for the positive.”
Barnhill expects to be off parole by the next election, so the proposition won’t really alter much for him. He feels he’s able to rejoin society more and more every day.
“I feel good in the sense that getting a little bit of my citizenship back and making amends with my community and they’re responding,” he said.
He leans Republican, but only because he believes in small government.
“We should take our responsibility for our community and the problems that are happening in front of us and attempt to address them,” he said.
His statement is reflected in the work he does; he’s studying to be a drug and alcohol counselor, he works for a non-profit and he’s his parole officer’s peer navigator, meaning he offers advice and resources to those just leaving prison.
“I have made the necessary changes in my life.”
Vasil Vukaj would have loved to vote in this past election as he is passionate about what’s happening in this country. Social justice is extremely important to him and he’s interested in reform as well.
“I feel thankful because this is a chance for us to integrate ourselves into society,” he said. “I have made the necessary changes in my life where I invested myself in education.”
Vukaj believes that every human being has a redemptive value and that this country has great potential to grow as a society if we recognize that and give people a chance to change.
He’s seen what he feels are some steps in the right direction like groups and programs coming in to prison and exposing people to receiving help to change their values and beliefs.
“To be able to get rid of that mentality that most of the people in prison have, this mentality that they’re not valued, that they don’t matter,” Vukaj said.
Vukaj has been volunteering at a food bank and was recently offered a job there. He also hopes to reach out to the youth and use his life lessons to speak to people. If given the chance, he would tell young people to value the power of their choices and that every choice has a consequence.
“[They should] make choices that will align them with their goals and their values and what they want out of life,” he said.