“On a chilly and rainy night in February, three members of the League of Women Voters walked into MCI-Norfolk, the largest medium-security prison for men in Massachusetts. As the trio entered the prison’s auditorium, about 100 people—most serving life without parole—stood to applaud.  An organization founded a century ago to bring the vote to women had come to meet with a small collective of America’s modern disenfranchised class—prisoners.”

That’s how James Keown, a lifer at MCI-Norfolk, reported on the visit by Colleen Kirby, our criminal justice legislative specialist; Judy Zaunbrecher, co-president; and Pattye Comfort, executive director, after an invitation to speak to the lifers’ group.  The group wanted to know about LWVMA support for criminal justice reform bills, including requiring a parole hearing for anyone who has served 25 years, and for a ballot question to allow incarcerated people to vote, as well as what the League does generally.

Judy pointed out the League’s long-standing support for criminal justice, stemming from the suffragists’ experiences being arrested and jailed for their protests.

Colleen outlined the gains in the criminal justice reform act of 2018 and bills the League is supporting this session to cover some gaps in that law.  While the parole hearing bill the audience was most interested in has been tabled, she assured them it will be introduced next session and has strong advocate support. 

Pattye noted that, while the effort to re-enfranchise inmates did not get enough signatures last fall, she expects advocates to try again.  During a question and answer session, veterans serving life sentences argued that disenfranchisement was unfair since they had served in the military. Colleen passed their suggestion to involve veterans’ groups in the ballot question effort to the Ballots Behind Bars advocates.

Asked how incarcerated people can help move legislation, Colleen told them to “tell your stories.  We get a lot of changes when people are willing to share their personal stories.”

“Clearly this group was well informed on many issues and was looking for ways to influence legislators and people outside the walls,” said Judy.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me.  Even having worked on the funding for legal services, including for prisoners, for many years, I was blown away by the stark over-representation of people of color and the obvious fact that many of them have turned their lives around.  It was humbling and moving and made me angry all at the same time,” said Pattye.

To read Keown’s full report on the visit, click here.