The bodies of people in America’s prisons are counted in the design of our political infrastructure, but their voices are not.
On the morning of Election Day in 2018, I went to vote at my local polling site in Maryland and then drove down to the D.C. Central Detention Facility, where I taught creative-writing workshops with a group of 18-to-24-year-old incarcerated young men. I parked, turned off the engine, and felt the soft vibration of the car come to a stop. I sat there and looked down at the i voted sticker in my hand—its adhesive clinging to my finger, its waxy paper catching the light through my windows.
I had been teaching in jails and prisons for a few years by then, and had started to become more intimately struck by all the ways in which incarceration spaces strip away a person’s agency. What had always been clear on an abstract level became more concrete the more time I spent working inside these facilities. It wasn’t simply that people were—literally—caged; it was that they had lost a long list of small privileges that people on the outside often take for granted: the choice of what food you will eat, what clothes you will wear, what books you are allowed to read, which loved ones to use your money to call. But something in that moment, my clothes still smelling of the elementary-school cafeteria where I had just cast my ballot, in what felt like the most consequential midterm election of my lifetime, laid bare the indignity of millions of incarcerated people being prevented from participating in our elections.