“I’m free!” Those were the first words I said in 1998 when I was released from prison. But with the restoration of most of my civil liberties this week, it feels sincere.
I was arrested in 1992 for being a gangster. That wasn’t the charge, but that was the cause. I spent a few years selling pharmaceuticals without the proper training and licensing. I’d also done the tangential activities that accompany unlicensed pharmaceutical sales. Short version: I sold drugs and robbed or shot people when I thought it was necessary. Eventually, I was caught, charged, and sentenced to 32 years in prison, with 20 suspended. I served six.
This is my opening to my story because I think it’s important to establish that I’m not innocent and I don’t expect sympathy. I earned those six years. I’m blessed that none of those bullets hit innocent bystanders or ended a life. I got what I got.
I was incarcerated in Virginia, a state with some of the most draconian laws governing felons. While incarcerated felons in Vermont and Maine can still vote, that’s not the case in Virginia. Even after completing your sentence and any additional parole or probation time, felons in Virginia (and several other states) don’t automatically have their rights restored.
I could have murdered 10 people in Maine and never missed an election. But a larceny conviction in Virginia may have cost me the franchise, for life. Of course, the disproportionate number of Black, brown, and poor people who have historically experienced more severe charges, harsher sentencing, and less leniency after incarceration, gives us a sense of why some states are harder on felons. Consider that in Maine and Vermont, over 94% of the population is white. In Virginia and Florida, those numbers drop to 61 and 54% respectively. There’s a reason that the harshest laws preventing felons from voting are in the states with the highest populations of Black voters and the highest populations of Black felons.
In 2018, Florida voters elected to give the right to vote back to as many as 1.5 million formally disenfranchised felons. That could change elections for the foreseeable future in that state. In 2016, then-governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe attempted to unilaterally do the same for Virginia felons but was blocked by the Virginia Supreme Court. This year, faced with the backlash over pictures of him in blackface from college, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam restored the rights of over 10,000 felons. I wasn’t in that number. In fact, my rights were restored just a week before the mass restoration. Still, free is free.
Ignored in all of this is that most of us are conditioned to believe that felons can’t vote, ever again. Period. Full stop. It’s so ingrained in our thinking that after I posted my restoration announcement, a friend asked me what the process was to have his rights restored, only to go to the site and find out his rights were restored in 2017. Imagine thinking you couldn’t vote when you could. It’s similar to what happens when you chain an elephant as a baby and keep him that way for years until as an adult you can remove the chains and the elephant will still behave as if they’re chained. I’ve also received several messages from people who ask if somehow my celebrity (listen, THEIR words, definitely not mine) helped. It didn’t. I just tried.
There’s a simple online application in Virginia that will guide you in restoring your rights. But of course it’s not advertised. I’ve never heard a parole/probation officer mention it. You have to find it. You have to care. And a lot of times, just staying free in a country with recidivism rates as high as 43% can take up enough mental space that voting isn’t a priority. Add to that, less than 60% of registered voters voted in the 2016 presidential election and even with a historic midterm turnout in 2018, less than 48% of registered voters voted. It’s difficult to make restoration of felons’ rights a priority when such a large portion of registered voters already don’t vote.
Change is coming, however. With Florida’s mass restoration, Virginia prioritizing it, and people with large platforms including several members of Congress finally giving the issue some attention, voting demographics may be shifting permanently. That’s what matters on the macro level. On the micro level? I’m back. I feel like I’m finally a citizen again. Like my voice matters.
When you walk into prison you’re stripped of your clothes. They make you squat and cough, while making you expose parts of your body you probably don’t even share with your sexual partners. They give you a number and usually only identify you by that number from that day forward. All of that is to remind you that your humanity is gone. When you come home, you report to a parole/probation officer who will remind you that your freedom is currently based on how they feel about you. Jobs are legally allowed to refuse employment because of your criminal record. Perhaps your family even views you differently. And if your community needs help, you’re limited in what you can do to help. You can’t even serve on a jury as a peer. Hell, even the 13th amendment allows for slavery if you’re convicted of a crime. But one word undid all of that.
Felonious Munk, best-known as the Blegghead (Black Egghead) on Comedy Central’s “Nightly Show w/ Larry Wilmore,” is a stand-up comedian and writer based out of Chicago. You can find more of his funny and fury at munkcomedy.com.