In Florida, Iowa and Kentucky, a person’s civil rights are stripped permanently if they have a prior felony conviction. In Florida alone, that means 1.6 million people do not have the right to vote—a figure contributing to six million disenfranchised people with prior felony convictions across the U.S. That this is the case in Florida is especially noteworthy: The swing state has determined the president in the past four elections is continuing to penalize citizens for a civic debt that’s already been paid.
Tomorrow, Floridians will have the option to do away with the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions. Referred to as the “Second Chances Bill,” Amendment 4 is on the ballot. If passed, it will amend the Florida constitution to allow reinstated citizens to have their rights restored once they complete their sentence requirements (meaning a person’s sentence, parole, and probation, plus any fines).
If the amendment isn’t passed, Florida’s current system of rights restoration will be upheld. Currently, after a person finishes their sentence requirements, they have to wait five to seven years to apply for the opportunity to ask for your rights back. If their application is accepted, they then have to go before a clemency board of four people that have no actual criteria or rubric they use to decide if your rights can be restored—it’s based solely on their discretion. Not only is it a self-described "arbitrary" process, but it also has a backlog of applications spanning years. The board consists of four people and only meets four times a year.
In August and September, I collaborated with Kelsey Aroian and the her team at Paladar Studios to dive deep into the fight for rights restoration in my home state of Florida. Meeting with and photographing these citizens for the resulting project, Blocked From the Ballot, was a great honor that left me with one clear conclusion: If we think that people are being rehabilitated, then they should be able to vote. If we don’t think they’re being rehabilitated, then we have to ask more questions about the criminal justice system.
Here, take a closer look, in interviews and portraits Broadly is reprinting from Blocked From the Ballot, at the lives of some of the people Aroian and I met who have been stripped of their civil rights—and have a chance to regain them should Amendment 4 pass. There are very many more like them.
BLOCKED FROM THE BALLOT: When did you go to jail, and what were the circumstances that put you there?
JOEY GALASSO: I went to prison on April 15, 1999. My brother was living with me, and he had a drug problem, which I wasn’t fully aware of. He robbed some Subways, and used my bicycle to do it. There was another co-defendant who told the police that I was the mastermind, even though I never robbed anything. He completely did it, but I didn’t have any money or a way to prove it. They arrested me for an accessory to commit armed robbery and gave me eight and a half years. What could I do? I made a bad choice about being around the wrong people. They said in court if I pleaded to two counts of armed robbery, which was a heavier charge, they would give me three years, and I’d already been in for six months. I got out on October 31, 2001.
Because of your criminal record, you had to wait five to seven years before you could petition the clemency board for your civil and voting rights back. Can you describe that process?
When inmates are released from the Florida State prison system, they immediately go through classification through a classification officer. Most people sign the petition for their rights before they get out of prison. I cared immediately, because one day I wanted to have a voice. I knew that I was a changed person—that I would be a part of the community, and that I would be married and have children. I envisioned all of it. So, of course, it was important to me to have that voice.
Then what happened? Did you meet with the clemency board?
In 2010, they finally came to give me an interview. I was so excited. I was working for Publix at the time—I always wore a shirt and tie, so I wore a shirt and a Jerry Garcia tie, because they’re cool as hell.
The guy said to me, “Everything’s in order. I know it’s been a long time for you.” He told me most people give up, and I hadn’t. I had all the paperwork, and tons of letters from people—friends, cops. Even a judge [provided a reference about] who I am today, the things that I’ve done, my character—the father that I am, the business owner that I am. The man that I am.
You drove to Tallahassee to present your case in front of Governor Rick Scott—the final step before you can get your rights back.
In 2013, I got a chance to get in front of Rick Scott. [The governor] had a bunch of people to go through who were trying to get their rights back, too, so it took about three hours. He finally got to me, and one victim showed up of one of the robberies of Subway—he just happened to be in the Subway when my brother robbed them. Even he said he agreed with me getting my rights back. Rick Scott says, “I see you’ve changed your life, and you turned around since you’ve been out of prison. But you have these speeding tickets, and you still broke the law."
What role do you think your social class played in how you ended up in prison?
GERALDINE HARRIS-HARREO: I was living in a poverty area and going to school where there were girls with pretty clothes on. In a week’s time, I ran through my clothes and see another classmate still wearing new clothes. That stuck with me. I ended up getting pregnant, and I wanted to kind of live above, so I began to sell drugs. I did pretty good—lots of people don’t really tell the story, but I enjoyed doing what I was doing because I was able to do what I wanted to do: go to the mall; go out of town. I set up traffic in-house, and I ran it so good the police didn’t know me—when they first came to bust the house, they said they wanted Sweet Dean, which was my street name. I said, “When I see her, I’ll let her know.” With that, I got away. Eventually, the police came back and found out who I was. I had multiple felonies. I was incarcerated for a year—and prison changed me.
A counterpoint whenever we hear about giving felons back the right to vote is, "Well, those people made their decisions, and they have to deal with their actions." What would you say to those people?
We have. We paid our debt to society in full. So, when I come home, I [should no longer be] labeled a criminal or a felon. I should have been forgiven when I paid my debt.
I want a second chance to prove myself. Give me the opportunity to step back and align myself with life, to show myself worthy of having that second chance to grow up, and to become a mentor, leader, role model, great mom, wonderful wife, and a great preacher. That’s what a second chance is all about.
How long did you serve in the military, and what happened in your life after you left the service?
LOVELL LEE: I served four years in the United States Marine Corps—three of those years at Camp Pendleton in California, and the last year in Okinawa, Japan. After I was honorably discharged when I was 23 years old, I started to get involved with drug culture. I started abusing crack cocaine. I was in and out of jail. I went to prison in 2005, then I was released in August 2006. I’ve been out ever since.
Because of your conviction, you cannot vote in Florida this November. Given that you completed your sentence and you’ve since attempted to rehabilitate yourself, how does it feel to know you still don’t have the right to vote?
That was extra tough because I served my country. When I went into the military, I had never been in any trouble as a juvenile or as a young adult. After I gave my life to the military, I struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder issues.
It’s really frustrating when I look at the American flag and think of what it represents, and when I think of when the Pledge of Allegiance says “with liberty and justice for all.” I have a real problem [with that], because there is no liberty and justice for all. In our country—the greatest country on the planet—we’re kind of hypocritical about that, and as time has passed, I think it’s gotten worse and worse.
How else has your previous conviction affected your life since you were released?
I applied for a job several years ago, when I had been out of prison for eight or nine years, and I was turned down [because of my record]. Another time, I applied at a Honda dealership, and the supervisor said that they didn’t want [to hire] me because of my background. That’s discouraging because I’m not a second-class citizen. I’m just as important as the next man or next woman who have never done anything.
This kind of treatment breeds a trail of people who eventually become hopeless. I think that’s the leading contributor to mass incarceration, because desperate people do desperate things. They ain’t necessarily supporting the drug habit or something. Breaking crime is against the law, but a lot of people are actually trying to survive and take care of family.
Can you tell us about when you were arrested and what how it changed your life?
YRAIDA GUANIPA: When I was arrested in 1996, I didn’t know anything about the judicial system or the sentencing guidelines. I didn’t know that in order for you to go to trial, you have to have money. I decided go to trial because I was willing to plead guilty for my participation in a crime, but I ended up with a 15-year sentence and five years probation. My sons were one and two years old when that happened, and the authorities sent me more than 500 miles away from Miami, [where we lived]. I felt like I was placed on another planet. They take moms and dads miles and miles away from their children even for a nonviolent first-time offender, like me.
How did your criminal record affect you after your release?
When you finish your sentence, you’ve paid your debt to society, but your record goes with you for the rest of your life. It doesn’t only affect me—there will always be someone over there that will be bullying my grandchildren saying, “Your grandma was in prison for 11 years.”
You’re one of about 1.5 million people in Florida who don’t have the right to vote because of their previous criminal convictions. What might people not understand about that status?
You have to wait seven years after you complete everything, even your probation time, and I completed my probation time in 2012, so I won’t even be able to apply for my rights until 2019. With the backlog that we have, it may take me 15 years for me to get in front of the clemency board. I’ll probably be dead at that time. It doesn’t matter that I have done in my time in prison—and it doesn’t matter what I have done after my time in prison.