Avalon Betts-Gaston of Illinois distinctly remembers her four years in prison through the lens of motherhood.
Even the loss of the right to vote was filtered through thoughts of her two sons: A civically active voter before she was sent to prison for wire fraud, Betts-Gaston found herself unable to participate in the local elections that had consequences for their lives. She felt a disconnect from her community, which she has worked to build back up since being released.
Many of the restrictions on voting in prison are part of a racist and violent backlash to Reconstruction, a period after the American Civil War when Congress expanded rights for Black Americans. Laura Williamson, associate director of democracy for Dēmos, a racial-justice-focused think tank, said states in the South in particular called constitutional conventions to rewrite their constitutions — in some cases with the explicit intention of establishing white supremacy in the state.
“In their genesis, they’re about preventing Black people in the South from voting,” Williamson said. “So especially in our pursuit of a multiracial, inclusive democracy, these laws can’t exist.”