California overwhelmingly passed Prop 17 earlier this month, reinstating the right to vote to over 55,000 people out of prison on parole and joining other states in a growing trend to dismantle institutional disenfranchisement.
Parolee Veronica Hernandez, 29, is thrilled—in the next election, she will be able to vote for the first time in her life.
Hernandez spent her childhood in and out of juvenile detention before ending up in prison at age 16 for 10 and a half years. Now, she works as a case manager with youth in the Mission District to ensure that members of her old community avoid making the same mistakes she made. To help pass Prop 17, Hernandez also worked with Initiate Justice, an advocacy group against mass incarceration.
When describing her reaction to the passage of Prop 17, Hernandez’s typically measured voice transformed into exhilaration. “It was unreal,” she said, laughing. “When we use our voice and we use it collectively and we fight together, we win. And it’s amazing. It’s amazing.”
A third generation Mexican American, Hernandez grew up in San Francisco neighborhoods including the Mission that she said were riddled with gang violence. “Violence was normal, you know, because I saw it in the community every day,” she said. Eventually, she ended up in prison for a violent crime after being tried as an adult.
Having been imprisoned at such a young age, Hernandez said the gravity of what happened didn’t quite hit her until later, while she was behind bars. “Not only are we serving our sentence and trying to rehabilitate ourselves, we’re also growing up in there,” Hernandez said.
In prison, Hernandez processed her experience with others who’d also made mistakes when they were very young, many of whom faced longer or even life sentences. “A lot of them say the same thing: ‘I wish I could have done things differently,’ or ‘If I would have known what I know now, I wouldn’t have done that,’” she said.
Hernandez was also fortunate enough to have a support system outside of prison, which she said made a huge difference. In addition to her family, community organizations like California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the Youth Justice Coalition advocated for her throughout her sentence.
Today Hernandez is making amends, trying to pay back the community that she remembers harming in the past. She works at a nonprofit called HOMEY (Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth), helping kids in the Mission with anything from counseling to tutoring to applying to college.
While Prop 17 passed with 58 percent of the vote, among the highest margins of any state ballot measure, over 6 million people voted against reinstating voting rights to parolees, which Hernandez said is a critical step toward reintegrating into society.
Not being able to vote even after completing her sentence two years ago has been discouraging.
“You don’t have the say-so that everyone else has, you don’t have a voice that everyone else has,” Hernandez said. “That just reinforces a negative message that’s already put into a lot of Hispanic communities, especially of lower income … that their voice doesn’t matter. And it does.”
In addition to not being able to vote, many previously incarcerated people face discrimination when searching for housing and jobs due to their record. Eventually, about half of those released from prison are arrested again, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California.
While Hernandez believes formerly incarcerated people grow and change just like everyone else, the prison industrial complex is a multi-billion dollar industry—and vested interests benefit from keeping prisons full. Prisoner advocates say the prison system has been a profitable enterprise since the 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except as a punishment for crime.
Hernandez remembers earning around a dollar an hour to work in “sweatshop conditions,” making clothing to be sold to the public. She noted how a Top Ramen packet in commissary cost $1.75, and with no other option, prisoners would purchase them.
During the national Free the 13th rally at the end of October, Ivan Kilgore, a prisoner serving a life sentence in Vacaville, spoke over Zoom from a cell about the historical context of the prison system and the so-called war on drugs. “It has deeper social and economic and racial agendas,” Kilgore said. These campaigns served “essentially to disenfranchise young Black men, young Latino men, people of color.”
Hernandez said the passage of Prop 17 is just a step in the right direction: there is always more to be done. She hopes eventually people in prison will also be allowed to vote, thereby starting their reentry process early and knowing they will be valued members of society when they come home. “When people feel their voices matter, and their concerns are addressed, they’re less likely to reengage in criminal activity,” Hernandez said.
But for now, she is pleased. Parolees regaining voting rights will encourage “civic engagement that makes our democracy stronger, and our community safer,” Hernandez said. “It promotes acceptance, it promotes support.”