On February 16, 2000, Scott Favreau, then 17, committed a crime that shattered a family and shocked the state of Vermont. In the early hours of the morning, he walked up to his foster mother, who was up grading high school English papers at the kitchen table, and shot her in the head with a .22 caliber rifle, immediately killing her. After leading police on a high-speed car chase, Favreau and his accomplice, the foster mother’s stepdaughter who was later found to be implicated in the crime, were arrested.
For the small community around West Burke, Favreau’s murder of his guardian, Victoria Campbell-Beer, represented a rare act of violence that robbed it of one of its beloved schoolteachers. For Favreau, the crime marked the deplorable end to a tumultuous childhood largely defined by neglect and abuse, both physical and sexual, allegedly at the hands of his biological father.
Upon settling into his new day-to-day life as a prisoner, he came to believe that, for all practical purposes, his life had ended. During these first years of incarceration, Favreau says, his identity became defined by his status as a non-entity in society. “It teaches you to be just an inmate,” he said of prison. “There’s not a lot of responsibility in here. You can sleep all day. You can do nothing at all. And that’s what a lot of us do.” Favreau says after his first years in prison he even began to see the guards—“the closest thing we have to society”—as strange, unrelatable visitors from the outside world.
During the first years of his term, Favreau began to mend ties to his biological mother, talking to her over the phone with some frequency. More often than not, their conversations would wind back to her financial struggles and desperate search for a well-paying job. Incarcerated with no way to help, Favreau says that these conversations often underscored his sense of powerlessness behind prison walls.
Ahead the 2006 election, partially propelled by the economic woes of his family, Favreau did something he describes as pivotal: He registered to vote, a rare privilege available to United States prison inmates in only Vermont and Maine.
Favreau says that participating in the electoral process brought a new feeling of agency in and connection to society at large. This, he said, helped to change his life. “It was one thing I could do that I can have control of, the one thing that could let me feel that I can make a difference in something.” After registering, he gradually began to follow developments in the news, informally debating other inmates about current events. He even began talking politics with prison guards, who eventually became a lot less otherworldly. “It helped me accept them because it gave me something in common with them,” Favreau said. “You can bond through a shared experience.”
In Favreau’s telling, however, the largest significance of voting as an inmate might go beyond his relationships with prison guards, his conversations with other inmates, or even any effect his vote might have on an election outcome. Favreau believes it has improved his chances of reintegrating with society upon his release, which he expects will come in roughly two years. “I grew up in prison and voting helped me learn responsibility,” Favreau said. “It taught me how to be a part of the community, and how to prepare me for it.”
For more than a century, supporters of the nearly ubiquitous voting prohibitions on felons and prisoners in the United States have offered a number of justifications for the laws. They have pointed to the alleged deterrent effect of stripping offenders of their voting rights. They argue that it’s a fitting punishment for felonies. They say it’s a way to keep those with poor moral stature from negatively influencing elections.
Yet historians and voting rights advocates have argued that these bans exist to deliberately keep minorities from the polls. After the Civil War and the consequent passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which was meant to extend the franchise to millions of nonwhites, states across the country faced a shifting balance of electoral power and raced to erect new barriers to voting. Many of the iconic restrictions on minority access to polls such as poll taxes and literacy tests were largely eliminated under powers that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave federal civil rights authorities. Yet, still today, prohibitions on the voting of those with felony records remains a consistent and racially-biased feature of America’s electoral landscape across the United States, where it’s estimated that nearly 6 million people, including a disproportionate share of minorities, are disenfranchised due to criminal history, according to the Sentencing Project. And in the strictest handful of states such as Florida, where it is estimated that nearly a quarter of the state’s black population is disenfranchised, ex-felons still face lifelong bans from the ballot.
Maine and Vermont—the nation’s first- and second-whitest states, respectively—provide America’s only opportunity to see what happens when prison inmates vote.
A complex hidden from public view in a hollow in the hills of central Vermont, Southeast State Correctional Facility is a minimum-security facility, filled with adult men nearing the end of their sentences and thus preparing to start their lives over again. Stocked with board games and wall-clinging inspirational phrases—“If all you can do is crawl, start crawling”—the prison is unmistakably a place for those awaiting their opportunity to return to square one.
For some in the prison, this has meant a heavy dose of daily politics. “This is not like your average coffee shop,” a soft-spoken yet voluble inmate named John Griffin warned me with a chuckle of the heated political discussions that take place at the facility. Sometimes, Griffin told me, a comment related to current events “can spark something.”
Yet, when I arrived the following week, the seven inmates I met in a visitation room inside the razor-wire-topped fences couldn’t have expressed greater harmony of their political views: Each one of the inmates was all-in for Bernie. It’s not like I requested this: When arranging the visit, I had simply asked that the prison’s administration facilitate a discussion, perhaps even a debate, among inmates who had registered to vote. But, as a prisoner named Chris Careau gently notes, there was a reason that Trump supporters weren’t present: None of the Trump people have bothered to register.
In a country where voting is seen by many as a privilege rather than a right, the accounts of the Vermont inmates show what elections can mean to people stripped of so many other rights that most people take for granted. And, given the diversity of their crimes—which range from driving offenses to murder, assault, and sexual assault—the roomful of inmate voters in Vermont also lays bare what perhaps makes many Americans least comfortable about re-enfranchisement of felons: the prospect of allowing those who have gravely violated the social contract to have a voice in American democracy.
Unsurprisingly, the incarcerated men in Vermont had strong feelings on prison voting policy. The Vermont prisoners spoke of an appreciation for the right to vote that was at times almost fanatical—expressions of gratitude for the franchise that could serve as fodder for a get-out-the-vote campaign.
“Just because we’re in jail doesn’t mean we’re not human,” said Jim Ingerson, a 45-year-old inmate with windswept black hair and a muscular frame who is serving time for drunk driving, burglary, and other charges. “To be able to vote made me feel as part of a community, like that I’m not just a convict, that I’m a human being.”
All of the inmates I spoke with agreed that participating in elections carried a power far beyond mere symbolism, that it has had a concretely positive effect on their hopes of successful release into society.
“It helps you feel connected to your community,” said Josh Laraway, a 40-year-old inmate serving two-and-a-half years for charges related to drunk and reckless driving. “It means that when you do get out, you can still have conversations with people who are not incarcerated or institutionalized.”
The Vermonters I interviewed are not the only ones who feel this way. A landmark ruling from Canada’s Supreme Court, for instance, asserted that denying inmates the right to vote runs afoul of not only democratic ideals but could also carry practical dangers. “Denying penitentiary inmates the right to vote is more likely to send messages that undermine respect for the law and democracy than messages that enhance those values,” the court ruled. “The legitimacy of the law and the obligation to obey the law flow directly from the right of every citizen to vote. To deny prisoners the right to vote is to lose an important means of teaching them democratic values and social responsibility.”
Of course, the sample size of those I interviewed in Vermont is small. But they claimed to be proof positive of the sentiments of the Canadian high court: They quickly revealed a robust knowledge of the intricacies and quirks of the current election cycle. They seemed to have a particular interest in policies intended make it less difficult for people like them to earn a living — things like universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage and job-creation. This seemed driven at least in part by an acute awareness that they would soon be released into a competitive society where they will face the lifelong disadvantage of a felony record.
John Griffin, a 36-year-old inmate who is serving time for sexual assault on a minor, told me his support for universal healthcare stems partially from his lack of ability to care for his loved ones from prison. “Just because I’m in the punishment phase of choices I’ve made,” Griffin said, “there’s no reason that the people that I’m responsible to care for should also have to suffer.”
Griffin and his peers expressed disappointment at the tone of the presidential race, particularly the lack of substance in much of the back-and-forth between candidates. “They don’t really seem to be focusing on the issues as much as they used to,” Griffin told me. “It’s gotten a lot more personal this year. It seems like they’re getting further away from what’s actually going on.”
Favreau, who, like the others, supports Bernie Sanders, was blunt about his priorities for this year’s election: “We need to make sure Trump doesn’t become president.”
Prisoners are literally wards of the state. That means they are more immediately vulnerable to policy changes than most people on the outside. So it’s no surprise that the men I met spoke passionately about criminal justice policy.
Some of them expressed frustration at the state’s penchant for shipping inmates off to private, out-of-state prisons, separating them from their families and making it more difficult for them to find housing after they’ve passed their minimum sentences. (Prisoners in Vermont must often find such housing within the state before being released into supervised probation. As a Vermont prisoner, for instance, Favreau himself had been shuffled between prisons in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia.) Josh Laraway sounded off about Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which contributed to stiffer sentencing and the growth of mass incarceration.
Some of the men said they were wary of Hillary Clinton’s association with her husband’s crime bill and her now-famous use of the term “super-predator” in reference to criminals in black communities. (All of the men I spoke with were white, a race that represents about 90% of the state’s prison population, although minorities are largely overrepresented in Vermont prisons as a share of the state’s population.) When asked whether he would vote for Hillary should Bernie lose, Laraway seemed to sum up the room’s sentiment: “I would have to vote for Hillary,” he said, “I would plug my nose and vote.”
With great interest, the Vermont men had watched the national expansion of the “ban the box” movement, which seeks to forbid employers from asking about criminal history on job applications. If a former inmate can just “get in the door and have an interview, that face-to-face can make a huge difference,” James Townsend, 31, who is serving time for assault and other crimes. “If people getting out of jail have an easier time, then fewer of them will go back.”
Having made an ill-fated attempt to rebuild his life in society in Vermont’s closely supervised probation program, Favreau has personal experience with the difficulties of reintegration. After his release in 2013, Favreau found a job in a warehouse in Brattleboro, and soon met and moved in with a girlfriend and her young son. Yet, Favreau was struggling with a large debt he had incurred largely during his first few months of freedom and, to ease his anxiety, he had begun to smoke pot, a fact he knew would become known by his probation officer because of required urine tests.
“One night I was at work and I felt like my life was a failure because I was thousands of dollars in debt,” Favreau said. “I figured I would be better off back in jail.” That night, Favreau violated his probation by crossing into Massachusetts, where he quickly called his girlfriend and told he what he’d done. By the end of the following day, Favreau was back in custody.
Favreau, who began making art in prison, said he has been using his failed year of freedom to work on strategies for his second try at reintegration, which he anticipates will come in approximately two years. In the meantime, he says he will continue to vote whenever an opportunity arises.
“It’s my lifelong goal to make amends for what I did and to give back to community and to the people I hurt,” Favreau said. Being able to vote has “taught me about my responsibility,” he added. “I can get out and make a difference one day."
Spencer Woodman is a freelance reporter based in New York.