Giving Hope—and a Vote—to the Formerly Incarcerated

A nonprofit’s registration drive educates felons about their rights.
Johnny Gomez. (Photo: Homeboy Industries)
Sep 27, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When the polls open in Los Angeles on Nov. 8, Michael “Mikey” Nunez will be casting his first ballot. The 34-year-old is one of the tens of thousands of Americans who registered to vote on Tuesday as part of National Voter Registration Day. But Nunez might never have registered if not for the intervention of Homeboy Industries, a downtown L.A.–based nonprofit that provides training and support to formerly gang-involved or incarcerated men and women.

Homeboy, which was founded by Father Gregory Boyle in 1988, hosted its second annual event on National Voter Registration Day with the aim of educating members of the community it serves about their eligibility to vote. Nunez, who was incarcerated off and on for about 18 years and has been out of jail for about four, never realized he’d be able to cast a ballot. “I didn’t know that I had the right to vote, because I am a convicted felon,” Nunez told TakePart. “I’m pretty excited.”

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Jose Arellano, 31, can relate to Nunez’s excitement. He registered to vote in the spring at Homeboy Industries and voted in his first election, the California primary, on June 7. “That was my first time ever at a polling station. It was a great feeling,” Arellano said.

At Tuesday’s registration event, Arellano told his formerly incarcerated peers why it’s so critical for them to register and head to the polls.

“Our voices need to be heard. We live in the communities where a lot of things are happening, and we have to be a part of the solution, and I think voting is a part of being the solution,” Arellano said he told the crowd. The event at Homeboy registered about 20 people, and along with giving a speech, Arellano talked one-on-one with people about their misconceptions about voting.

“I was telling a little homey a little while ago—he asked me, ‘Will I get in trouble if I vote for the wrong person or the person that I want?’ ” Arellano said. The young man was also afraid that his social security number would be stolen. “So there’s a lot of information that’s not out there,” Arellano said.

Mikey Nunez. (Photo: Homeboy Industries)

Arellano, who grew up with a drug-addicted mother and didn’t have a stable home, was first locked up when he was 15 and spent about 10 years incarcerated. Like Nunez, he believed he couldn’t vote because of his felony conviction.

“I assumed I’d never vote,” he told TakePart. One day in the spring when he was at Homeboy, “I heard someone say, ‘If you’re not on parole, you can vote,’ and I was kinda like, ‘Are you serious?’ So I went and asked the lady, and she was like, ‘Yeah, let’s register you to vote.’ So I signed up.”

In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most formerly incarcerated individuals have the right to vote after completion of their sentences. Nevertheless, a 2015 report by The Sentencing Project found that about “2.6 million people are disenfranchised in states that restrict voting rights even after completion of sentence.” Only Maine and Vermont allow people to vote while they are incarcerated, according to the report.

“The majority of the individuals at Homeboy who have overcome their criminal pasts are fully eligible to vote,” Boyle said in a statement. “But many of them have never even thought about voting as a right that they have, let alone an opportunity that they would want to seize.”

Seizing the opportunity has given Arellano a confidence boost. “I used to feel less-than—because I’m from the street, because I’d been locked up before. I was ashamed that I had been to prison. I was ashamed that I had been on parole. So I felt less than other people,” he said.

Now that he knows his vote—and his voice—matters, Arellano believes voting “is the great equalizer: Donald Trump only gets one vote; I only get one vote; Hillary Clinton gets one vote. We all only get one vote, no matter what your status is in society. That’s what makes it important that we cast that vote.”

“Your voice matters, and if you want the right people to go in office, you should go and vote,” Nunez agreed. “I’m really thankful. It’s a good thing to register to vote.”
Jose Arellano. (Photo: Homeboy Industries)