Polling stations open on Rikers Island for detainees, advocates say

Rikers Island inmates have lost their freedom, but most still have the right to vote — so the city should open polling places behind bars, lawyers wrote Monday.

Detainees currently use mail-in ballots to vote. Although about 90% are eligible because they were not convicted of a crime, a much lower percentage of inmates actually voted.

While the total prison population has been over 5,000 since September, only 301 inmates voted in the November general election using mail-in ballots they received during a voter registration drive between August 2021 and October 2021, according to corrections department figures.

In a letter sent to the city’s board of elections, the Legal Aid Society said the law requires “adequate and fair access” to polling places – a standard the society says applies to incarcerated people.

“Despite this legal mandate, those detained at Rikers effectively do not have access to any early voting sites,” the letter states. “The lack of early voting options prevents inmates from being treated the same as all other New Yorkers, leaving thousands of eligible voters without an opportunity to vote early.”

Several dozen groups plan to rally on the issue outside the Board of Elections headquarters in lower Manhattan at noon on Tuesday.

Greg Williams, 57, who was detained at Rikers in 2020 for a parole violation, said the absenteeism system was confusing. “It just didn’t work the way they set it up,” said Williams, an activist with advocacy group Freedom Agenda.

“People didn’t know how to get mail-in ballots in a timely manner, who they were supposed to turn to, and there was no one to really advise them. Sometimes the information they are supposed to give you gets thrown in a box and stays there for weeks.

Corrections officials say the agency welcomes the idea, but establishing polling places in prisons is up to the Board of Elections. The Correctional Service would take care of security and logistics.

“We are proud of the ongoing work we do to encourage voter engagement at our institutions,” said Correctional Service spokeswoman Shayla Mulzac. “From distributing and hand-delivering voter registration forms and ballots to educating those in our care about their right to vote, we are committed to ensuring that individuals have a active voice in issues that affect their communities.”

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Mulzac said the corrections department provides voter information packets with ballot application forms and deadlines and makes voter guides available on tablets used by inmates. The June 2022 Primary Voter’s Guide is being uploaded.

She said the agency conducts monthly registration efforts and uses the weekly COVID-19 flyer to update the prison population on voting news. Law library staff members provide information. And she said those released from Rikers receive voter information and a registration form.

However, voting rights activist Takeasha Newton says the Corrections Department’s suffrage record is mixed.

Newton, who was last at Rikers to educate voters on May 25, said the agency only allows one day a month to register detainees and there are often no staff available to escort. volunteers. Access to voter information is limited, she said.

“I want to acknowledge that they have come a very long way, but they still have a long way to go,” said Newton, a member of the Families Alliance for Justice. “It matters because our communities are greatly disenfranchised.”