While I was in prison, every waking moment of every day felt like a perpetual state of misery. The social death I incurred as a result of my incarceration deepened the sense of disenfranchisement that I have felt my entire life. As prisoner K86991, I was denied a variety of rights. When I completed my 26-years-to-life prison term and paroled Sept. 12, 2018, I thought that my disenfranchisement and the accompanying nightmare were finally over. I was wrong.
The thousands of collateral consequences that awaited me when I walked out of prison made it clear that I am not a “full” citizen. Citizens can go where they want when they want. Citizens can pursue whatever professional licenses their hearts desire. Citizens have property rights. And most importantly, citizens can vote. For me and tens of thousands of my fellow community members, these same rights are either extremely curtailed or nonexistent.
Of all the consequences I suffer as a result of my felony conviction 25 years ago, none are as consequential as California’s constitutional ban on the voting rights of people on parole. I was reminded of this fact in a recent conversation with my daughter, who asked my opinion on the presidential election. When she asked whom I would be voting for, I explained that I cannot vote because I am on parole. Initially, I felt ashamed. Then I reminded myself that my past criminal conviction does not define who I am today, even if society generally fails to acknowledge that fact.
I have made more than my fair share of bad decisions in life. But I worked incredibly hard on my pathway to freedom. While incarcerated, I earned six associate degrees, attended more than 1,000 hours of self-help groups and more importantly, fundamentally changed who I am as a human being. Once released, I became a force for good within my community. Initially, I worked as a certified Braille transcriber producing alternate forms of media for California community college students. Now I work inside California’s Pelican Bay State Prison as a full-time life coach for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and am a full-time college student at Humboldt State University. I pay taxes and volunteer wherever and whenever I can.
I am one of about 50,000 people who have completed their prison terms in California, yet are still denied the right to vote. Because of ongoing racial inequalities in our criminal justice system, three out of four men leaving California prisons are Black, Latinx or Asian American. As a result, the California Constitution disproportionately disenfranchises people of color.
The particular disenfranchisement of Black voters, such as myself and my great-great-grandparents, is not a new phenomenon in the United States. Black voters have been systematically turned away from state polling places since this country’s inception. In the not-too-distant past, literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation and fraud were all used to deny Black people the right to vote. Today, our past criminal records have been weaponized and used to deny us this right as well. Different tactic, same outcome: the disqualification of otherwise qualified voters.
My official parole discharge review date is Sept. 11, 2025, which means I will be on parole for a total of at least seven years. That is seven years that I will be paying taxes, helping pay the salaries of elected officials whom I cannot vote for or against. That is seven years that I will not be able to vote on incredibly important ballot propositions.
For me, not being able to vote is heartbreaking. With all my heart, I believe in the values upon which this country was founded. All I want to do is live my life, serve my community and fully partake in the democratic process. Now that I am a law-abiding, tax-paying, fully rehabilitated member of society, I feel that my vote should be restored. In our country, freedom is predicated on our right to vote. There are not varying degrees of freedom. Either you are free or you are not. Simply stated, I will not be free until I am free to cast my vote.
I am not the worst thing that I have done in life. I am a son who loves and respects my parents. I am a father who loves and cherishes my daughter. I am an uncle who does everything in my power to support and guide my nieces and nephews. I am a brother among seven siblings, all of whom I love with all of my heart. I am a citizen of the United States who loves my country, and as such, I want to see our country live up to its highest ideals. For that to happen, we all must have a say in this democracy. And I am not alone or unique — there are thousands of Californians who have completed their prison terms and are now contributing to their communities, though they are still denied the right to be full participants in our shared democracy.
Voting is the hallmark of a genuinely democratic society. I am extremely optimistic that California voters will affirm Proposition 17 on Nov. 3, which will amend the California Constitution to restore the right to vote to people who have completed their prison terms. Prop. 17 is a test of California’s values — passing it will demonstrate that we unequivocally stand for equality, inclusion and fairness.
Mark Taylor is a life coach for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition inside California’s Pelican Bay State Prison and a college student majoring in social work at Humboldt State University.