It's not every day that inmates at the Broward County Main Jail are serenaded by a cacophony of megaphones, trombones, paint bucket drums, and violins. But tonight, South Florida activists will bust out their instruments and create as much noise as possible to highlight lousy conditions and the state’s worst-in-the-nation treatment of former prisoners when it comes to voting rights.
In 1971, the Attica prison riot created a national firestorm — and then a dialogue — about race and violence behind bars. This past April, a riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina left seven people dead, dozens injured, and 22 hospitalized. It reignited that dialogue.
The local ruckus — part of a national movement — comes from activists with the Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward, Food Not Bombs South Florida, and the Broward Democratic Socialists of America, among other groups. It's all part of the runup to the August 28 primary elections and the Attica anniversary.
They'll begin by storming the Broward County Main Jail downtown by way of Bubier Park.
Dara Hill of the Broward Democratic Socialists of America notes that the last solidarity demonstration took place in Miami earlier this spring. “This has been going on for quite a while,” she says. "I don’t think anything’s changed from when they first put out the list of demands for change going back like a year or two." Similar prison demonstrations at the Broward Main Jail date to 2016.
Hill points out that complaints about prisoner mistreatment at the government-run prisons of years ago have migrated to the for-profit prisons of today. “There are a lot of problems," she says. “All aspects of imprisonment have been incentivized and attached to a profit motive that’s very frightening.”
Florida’s incarceration rate is 21 percent higher than the national average and the tenth highest in the nation. A state law here keeps inmates in prison 18 percent longer than elsewhere.
Broward jails have a history of failing to treat inmates with mental illness humanely, according to an 88-page report published this month by the federal regulators who oversee the county jails. The treatment dates back 40 years to a finding by U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler that the system was too crowded and relied on inadequate medical facilities, sanitation, and plumbing.
In June, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel replaced Armor Correctional Health Services, the county jail health-care provider, with Correct Care Solutions, a company that has its own history of accusations of needless deaths and poor care.
The activists will present a series of demands they hope will lead to, among other things, an “immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of black and brown humans.”
Elijah Manley, 19 — a Green Party candidate for Broward School Board and a member of the Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward — has attended past strikes outside the jail. “This demonstration is important because of the disgusting conditions of our jails and prisons,” Manley says. “We stand in solidarity with prisoners and those being attacked by our for-profit criminal justice system.”
Hill says the system is “point blank designed to target people of color,” adding it works “hand-in-hand, unfortunately, with our law enforcement system. We really do have to look at the people whose voices have been taken away or who are disenfranchised. As that percentage of our population continues to grow, that’s a concern: if we continually disenfranchise a chunk of our population.”
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One demand, perhaps the most important in the long term, calls for restoring the voting rights of “all confined citizens, serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called ex-felons.”
Florida is one of three states, including Iowa and Kentucky, that denies former prisoners their civil rights until they petition to regain them. Roughly 1.6 million people, or 8 percent of the state’s population, cannot vote, hold office, or serve on a jury. Barring felons from voting affects 21 percent of Florida’s African-American voting-age population and makes Florida’s disenfranchisement of its residents “a radical departure from the norm in the United States,” according to a 2016 report from the Brennan Center for Justice.
This November, though, voters will decide whether to approve Amendment 4, which would automatically restore voting rights to many former prisoners upon the completion of their prison, probation, or parole terms. Those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses would not be covered by the initiative, which will need support from 60 percent of voters to pass.
“These people should have a voice. They should have a way to speak up about their local elected officials, state elected officials,” Hill says. “It’s a good thing.”