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Former prison inmates are shedding the stigma and running for public office

July 27, 2020 by G.W. Schulz

Tarra Simmons could hardly believe how far she’d come. The same prosecutor’s office in Kitsap County, Washington that once convicted her of drug offenses and sent her to prison had just endorsed her candidacy for the state legislature. In November, she will be a contender for Washington’s district 23 - a far cry from the prison yard at Mission Creek Correctional where she served a 30 month sentence.

Given the stigma of having served time in prison, finding the courage to run for office after a life in prison seems unthinkable. But a growing number of reformed felons are willing to do it, and voters have been receptive to their contention that having once been inside the corrections system is what gives them the perspective necessary to help fix it.

Simmons and others like her are profiled in a new report from the criminal justice news site, The Marshall Project. “People only associate me with my incarceration history, not the tremendous amount of violence I’ve survived,” Simmons told the site about her criminal past. “I had a really hard time trusting people.”

For Simmons, drug and alcohol addiction, criminal offenses, chronic school truancy, child sexual assault, and teen pregnancy were all too common occurrences in her family. To survive, she embraced the lifestyle that her harrowing upbring had wrought. The time in prison changed Simmons, however. After release, she sought help from social services organizations, shook her own severe drug addiction, and eventually became a lawyer.

The Marshall Project cites other examples. A Michigan man who spent 14 years in prison beginning at age 18 is running for the state legislature there in part on a criminal justice reform platform. A Republican candidate for Congress in Georgia served two years in federal prison, while another is running in Tennessee after four years locked up. Yet another in Maryland served a jail sentence while pregnant.

“There’s a missing voice in our legislature,” Simmons told The Marshall Project. “You have a lot of well-intentioned advocates who are trying to push criminal justice reform, but they can’t know it as intimately as people who have survived it.”

Simmons has since founded a nonprofit organization called the Civil Survival Project that aids former offenders on the outside. She and others point to the “invisible burden” of a criminal record, which can create barriers to public housing, student loans, and employment opportunities, and engender judgment and disapproval from peers and colleagues.

Not every state even makes it possible for former offenders to run for office. The candidate in Tennessee running for Congress had to first petition a court to restore her right to participate in the political process. States like West Virginia, Alabama, Delaware, and Illinois restrict or outright prohibit former offenders from holding public office.

The Tennessee candidate, Keeda Haynes, likened running for office as a conflict similar to the struggle the nation underwent before it concluded that women and people of color should be permitted to vote. The candidates say that even where they don’t win elections, running for office has made them more comfortable to speak openly about their pasts, and their campaigns are also inspiring supporters to open up about their own criminal records.

“This is an opportunity to change the narrative and have tough, hard conversations around barriers to reentry,” Haynes said.

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