In San Diego, Black Muslims are working to expand voting access in jails

Pillars of the Community is hiring a team of pretrial inmates to register eligible voters from behind bars. The group’s leaders say it’s part of their faith as Muslims.

(RNS) — Most inmates in California jails are eligible to vote. But former inmate Christopher Jackson says few of them actually know that. Fewer still have any idea how to cast their ballots from behind bars.

During the months Jackson spent in custody at San Diego Central Jail and George Bailey Detention Facility, he registered about 200 of his fellow inmates to vote ahead of the 2018 municipal elections.

Nearly all, he said, were surprised to learn that Californians in pretrial incarceration can legally vote, or that their votes for city council members or judges could affect their own futures.

“We’re all here in this situation, in custody, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a say in this district,” said Jackson, who has since been released. “There are a lot of people who may not be found guilty, and even those that have to take some time for what they did, their vote should still count.”

Jackson’s work as an inside voting organizer was funded by Pillars of the Community, a faith-based criminal justice advocacy group led by Black Muslims in southeast San Diego. Leaders of the group say they want to see an America without prisons.

The first step to accomplishing that goal, Pillars of the Community’s founder Khalid Alexander said, is protecting currently and formerly incarcerated individuals’ access to the ballot. 

That’s why, during every election cycle for the past five years, the group has hired and trained a team of pretrial inmates to register eligible voters from behind bars.

“All of these laws and judges don’t just come out of nowhere, like the tablets that came down to Moses,” said Alexander, a San Diego native and community college professor. “These are all man-made. When our communities aren’t aware of what’s on the ballot and aren’t fighting so that everybody can be engaged in the political process, we’re the ones who end up suffering.”

Alexander founded Pillars over a decade ago with the aim of helping formerly incarcerated Muslims in southeastern San Diego find employment and reintegrate into society. But without addressing broader issues in the criminal justice system, he found, his work was like “filling a bucket with water that has holes at the bottom.”

He began shifting Pillars toward advocacy work targeting the criminal justice system, including voting rights for the disenfranchised. Since then, his organization has registered hundreds of new voters every year.

California is among the more progressive states when it comes to felony convictions. Voting rights are automatically restored to individuals after release from prison and discharge from parole. Those on probation and in pretrial detention may also vote.

That means most of the tens of thousands of inmates in California’s jails have the legal right to vote. But many still face  de-facto disenfranchisement, according to the ACLU of Northern California, which has touted Pillars of the Community’s inside organizer work as a model for other activist groups around the state.

From delayed mail-in ballot delivery to restrictions on access to pens, pretrial detainees in county jails are routinely prevented from exercising their legal right to vote, said Laila Aziz, director of operations at Pillars of the Community.

That’s where Pillars’ inside organizers, like Jackson and other short-term hires who work from behind bars in county jails, come in. 

Laila Aziz, operations manager at the nonprofit Pillars of the Community in San Diego, is shown on June 24, 2020. Photo by Zoë Meyers/inewsource

“When you don’t give me access, I’ll just hire somebody in that location, in that pop, in that jail, and have them register people involved,” said Aziz, who has been coordinating voter inreach programs twice a year since joining Pillars in 2017. 

Every election cycle, the group hires pretrial inmates and pays them $17 an hour to register other eligible detainees to vote and conduct civic engagement education while in custody. Pillars trained its inside organizers during public visits and sets up phone accounts to remain in regular contact.

These inside organizers are able to alert Pillars’ team to obstacles eligible voters are facing, such as ballots frequently arriving days after the election had passed.

“We were all in close proximity together, so I was able to translate better for my peers all this information I was getting from the outside,” said Jackson. “I was speaking from a place where I’m just like them.”

Combined with door-knocking and other voter education programs, such as registering locals who have completed their parole or are on probation but were unaware that they can vote, Aziz said Pillars has connected with tens of thousands of eligible voters.

She believes it’s enough to sway local elections. 

Ahead of the November elections, Pillars has focused on educating pretrial detainees about ballot initiatives, including Proposition 17, an amendment to open up voting rights to the estimated 40,000 Californians on parole for felony convictions, as well as Proposition 25, a referendum on a state law that banished money bail. 

In the past, Pillars has also partnered with the League of Women Voters to send its own volunteers into detention facilities for voter registration drives. This year, that’s not happening due to the coronavirus.

So Aziz’s team hired additional inside organizers to educate and register their fellow pretrial detainees — hiring five instead of the three employed in past years. 

The nonprofit also ramped up its email outreach program. Organizers filed California Public Records Act requests for the names of all people currently in local jails. Dozens of volunteers then emailed each of the names on the lists, informed them of their voting rights and gave instructions on how to request voter registration and how to vote while in jail. 

Like many Muslims around the country working on protecting voter access for their community, Aziz and Alexander say their work is driven by the justice-oriented nature of their faith.

Rooted in faith

In San Diego and throughout California, Muslim organizers are also working on a series of initiatives to mobilize their community’s voters, registering Muslims by the dozens and educating them on their voting rights. 

Ismahan Abdullahi of San Diego’s Muslim American Society spearheads local voter engagement initiatives targeting refugees. The Council on American-Islamic Relations’ chapters up and down the state; the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council; Muslim Students Association West; and mosques including Upland’s Middle Ground Muslim Center have also been holding voter registration events.

“As Muslims, it’s really an obligation to resist oppression, which is one of the worst sins a person can commit in our religion,” said Malcolme Morgan, who was hired as Pillars’ Muslim organizer in 2018. 

An artist, rapper and children’s book author who grew up in southeast San Diego, Morgan describes his work with Pillars as “liberation of the captives” — a striking image, considering that up to 30% of enslaved Africans brought to America were Muslim. 

At 19 years of age, Morgan was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He has since been released to a halfway house, where he continues serving his sentence. Though neither on parole nor probation, Morgan said he is not legally able to vote.

And until he is able to do so, he is not a full citizen, he argued.

“I’m only three-fifths of a man,” Morgan said. “I don’t have the right to vote, I don’t have the right to purchase firearms, I don’t have the rights to go and travel wherever. So, in essence, because I don’t have the right status as a full citizen, I’m not free.”

Mass incarceration and felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affect Muslims — especially Black Muslims. Many Black and incarcerated people have been drawn to the faith, particularly through learning about Malcolm X, due to Islam’s emphasis on racial equality and social justice.

“Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States penitentiary,” noted Aziz. Many of the group’s members are themselves formerly incarcerated Muslims.

While Muslims make up just 1% of the U.S. population, about 12% of federal prisoners self-identify as Muslim, per Bureau of Prisons data, and Muslims comprise about 9% of state prisoners, the civil rights group Muslim Advocates found last year. An estimated 90% of all incarcerated Muslims in the U.S. converted to Islam while behind bars.

Muslims have always held a special concern for civil rights within the carceral system since Islam began taking hold among African Americans in the 1920s. The Nation of Islam in particular was targeted for surveillance, infiltration, harassment and religious and racial profiling by law enforcement. Black Muslims responded by taking a leading role in the civil rights struggle and successfully championing prisoners’ rights through civil disobedience and the first organized prison litigation movement, according to University of Mississippi history professor Garrett Felber.

A 1964 Supreme Court ruling in a case initiated by Muslim prisoner Thomas X Cooper  recognized U.S. prisoners’ constitutional rights; until the Cooper v. Pate decision, incarcerated people were seen as “slave(s) of the State.”

Pillars of the Community works with individuals in San Diego who have been targeted by law enforcement. Photo via Facebook

A new generation of Muslims is building upon that legacy, in California and around the country.

Islah LA, a Muslim-run inner-city community center in South Los Angeles, hires formerly incarcerated Muslims to staff its Islamic school and affordable housing initiatives. In New York, a former prison chaplain runs the Muslim Prisoner Project, which holds book drives for detainees. Southern California’s Tayba Foundation offers Islamic education programs for incarcerated Muslims, including Morgan.

At San Antonio’s Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah, mosque leaders held a pandemic-friendly drive-thru voter registration event to educate locals, including former felons, on their voting rights.

Believers Bail Out, launched two years ago in Chicago, bails out Muslims in pretrial incarceration by collecting zakat, the annual tax Muslims pay on their wealth. The funds are designated for the welfare of the poor, needy and debt-ridden, as well as for other aims specified in the Quran such as the freeing of slaves and captives.

“There’s millions of people in America just like me, that are not free,” Morgan said. “That’s not only people that are stuck behind barbed wire fences, they’re also people out here, riding or driving on the freeways and going to work every day. The work that we’re doing is to liberate those chains of bondage.”

Voting as empowerment

Before being incarcerated, Morgan had no interest in being involved with the political system. He felt voting was a pointless exercise, even a hoax. Once he was imprisoned, he realized that the current system of mass incarceration was shaped by legislation and ballot initiatives.

According to the Sentencing Project, about 30% of California’s felony disenfranchised population is Black. Because of the “lopsided” rates of felony convictions among minorities, saying felons and parolees should not have the right to vote is effectively saying that many Black and brown people don’t have the right to vote, Morgan argued.

“All these like voter disenfranchisement laws, mass incarceration, these modern-day Jim Crow laws — they’re ways of keeping the status quo as it has always been in this country,” he said. 

Pillars has taken direct action to help people regain their rights, organizing expungement clinics and job fairs for formerly incarcerated Californians and sitting people with criminal records down with San Diego’s public defender’s office to restore their voting rights.

Pillars also advocates for reforming criminal justice legislation, such as removing gang enhancements, which can add time to a convicted person’s sentence. Pillars joined the statewide Time Done campaign, which argues that individuals who have completed their sentences should not be restricted from participating in the democratic process. 

“Voter disenfranchisement for prisoners and for people who are on parole is basically an arm from the same beast that is meant to suppress Black votes, is meant to suppress the votes of people who are supposed to be outcasts and the other,” Alexander said. The best way to overturn the system of inequality his community faces is ensuring disenfranchised communities have access to voting, he argues.

Pillars’ founder was also once a skeptic about the power of voting. But in 2014, he learned about California’s Proposition 47, which aimed to recategorize certain nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

He felt his faith required him to vote for the measure and push others to as well.

Not long after, he met a man who told him he had been incarcerated when the proposition passed. Overnight, he told Alexander, his jail went from being so crowded that inmates were forced to sleep on the floor — to nearly empty. 

That’s when Pillars dove headfirst into its voter in-reach program. Whether minorities approve of the system or not, Alexander said, they cannot afford not to know what ballot measures and what candidates are on the table.

“We’re not telling you to play the game,” Alexander said. “We’re telling you not to get played. If you’re in a fight and one of your hands is tied behind your back, or if you refuse to hit them because you don’t believe in the power of the hand — well, you’re still going to get hit.”

This story was published in partnership with The GroundTruth Project through its Preserving Democracy and Voting Rights fellowship.