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Detainees walk out of cells, into voting booths in Chicago

CHICAGO, Ill. – Sirjerathan Wilson never thought it was worth the trouble to vote and never had. But inside Cook County Jail, Wilson sees it differently: voting is a chance to remind himself that his opinion matters and to show his family that he's doing more than just letting one day bleed into the next.

“I felt good," said Wilson, 28, who has been locked up on gun charges for seven months. "I felt like I was doing something right.”

Wilson is among over 1,200 detainees at the county lockup in Chicago doing something new in Illinois and, except for one small pilot at a women's jail in California, something that may never have been undertaken in any jail in the United States. They are casting their ballots in a polling place set up right inside the jail.

A state law enacted last summer requires that Illinois' 20,000 pretrial detainees be given the opportunity to vote. That means absentee ballots must be distributed in every jail in the state. But the law also requires that any county with more than 3 million residents set up voting machines in the jail. Cook was the only county to qualify.

This is all more than fine with Sheriff Tom Dart, whose office runs the jail that holds about 5,500 inmates, 95% of whom are awaiting trial. Dart has gained a reputation for innovation after introducing an inmate-operated pizza kitchen, an inmate-run garden that sells produce to local businesses, and a program in which inmates help demolish vacant homes. For him, voting is part of a larger effort to create productive citizens.

"The question is, do you want them coming out more damaged and able to do more damage to society, or do you want them to be a benefit to the community?” Dart asked. “What better way to tell people that they matter, that they are relevant and can have a positive impact on their community than saying your voice, your vote, matters?"

With the passage of the detainee voting law, Dart said his goal was to create what he called an "educated electorate.” So, for the last several weeks, educators from nearby DePaul University and Dominican University and others have been coming to the jail to teach voter education classes. At Dart's request, the city's public television station prepared brief videos to introduce detainees — the majority of whom have never voted before — to candidates and explain where they stand on issues.

During the first of two weekends of voting at the jail, 1,200 detainees cast ballots. On Monday, the jail was unable to provide a tally for the second weekend.

Stevie Valles is the executive director of Chicago Votes, a voting rights and education group that helped push through the legislation last August. Giving detainees the ability to vote allows them to have a say in their children's education or their family's health care, even though they are incarcerated.

"I think it reminds them that they are citizens," Valles said.

Not everybody is a fan.

"I'm not sure why we are bending over backwards for that population,” said State Sen. Mark Batinick, a Plainfield Republican, who argued that the bill wasn't necessary because inmates already have the right to vote absentee.

“The hospital is not a voting location so if somebody gets a DUI and puts four people in the hospital, the one that gets to vote is the person who got the DUI,” said Batinick, who voted against the bill. "I don't know why the person who got the DUI is the one who gets the special help."

But supporters say it is a question of fairness. Men and women who have not been convicted of a crime should be afforded the same rights as convicted felons in Illinois, who are allowed to vote upon their release from prison.

State Sen. Omar Aquino, a sponsor of the bill, said it sends a powerful message to the detainees.

“It reminds them that they are presumed innocent,” he said. This is important, especially for those who remain locked up simply because they can't afford to post bond.

“In our society we have the presumption of innocence, whether they can bond out or not,” he said.

To Dart, in a place where the inmates are told what to do, where to walk, when and where to sleep and what to eat, there is no overstating the importance of casting one ballot.

“You see the expressions on their faces after they vote and it's wild,” he said. “It was like they just won the lotto, they were so proud.”