The New Yorker | Voter-Registration Day at Rikers Island
August 27th, 2018
By Elizabeth Barber
On a damp Monday morning at nine o’clock, as Governor Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon barnstormed New York City before the Democratic primaries, a small group of volunteers entered the veterans’ unit on Rikers Island, representing another campaign. Inside, about a dozen men sat at metal tables in a dayroom. Anthony Posada, a slight thirty-three-year-old attorney with the Legal Aid Society, addressed the room. “How many people here know that if you’re on Rikers Island, you can vote?” he asked.
The inmates had been in the middle of a reëntry-program meeting (one man had written his goals in a notebook: “1) no ass kissing 2) no passing gas 3) no ass grabbing”). Posada continued: did the group know that many of the people controlling their cases—the judges and the District Attorneys—occupy elected positions? “We have forms,” he said, placing a stack of voter-registration and absentee-ballot applications on a table. “We can start helping people get registered.”
In New York State, prisoners can’t vote if they’re serving time for a felony, but that doesn’t apply to those who are waiting for a decision in their court cases—most of the six thousand and twenty-five inmates at Rikers. Each Monday in August, volunteers have canvassed the city’s jails, making people aware that, as Posada put it, “your voices do matter.”
Posada approached a tall marine who said that he’d last voted in 2008, for Barack Obama. “I didn’t think it impacted me until I got in here,” he said. “I never thought about the legal system, because I was never really a part of it. Once I became part of it, I figured, how bad can it be?” He took an absentee-ballot application. “Turns out, it’s really—” He censored himself. “You know,” he said.
Volunteers walked around the room, handing out forms. An inmate waved off an absentee ballot. “I don’t want to think that I’m going to be here,” he said. After fifteen minutes, the group got in a van and drove to another razor-wire-ringed facility, one for general-population male inmates.
This unit was crowded. A Plexiglas wall separated the dayroom from sixty cots. A television was tuned to “The Jerry Springer Show”; several inmates watched in silence, wearing earbuds attached to transmitters. Perry Grossman, a cheerful, ruddy-cheeked volunteer in a polo shirt, addressed the room. “When you’re a voter, people ask you what you think,” he said. “People ask you what you want. It’s just a way to be more powerful.”
When President Trump was inaugurated, Grossman was a commercial litigator, handling a lawsuit for a liquor distributor. “Meanwhile, the apocalypse was occurring,” he said. “I just kind of lost it, and I was, like, I should be doing something.” He quit his job and joined the New York Civil Liberties Union, where he runs the Voting Rights Project. “Everyone is naturally skeptical of the chubby white guy standing next to a C.O. with a stack of papers,” he said. “But,” he went on, “what we have here at Rikers is a very large population of people who are unregistered but eligible. When you look at margins of error in a lot of close elections, we’re talking about a number of people who could swing a race.”
An inmate with a teardrop tattoo beneath one eye, Jenar Ortiz, said that he’d hoped the volunteers had come to hear inmates’ grievances: “We’re being treated like animals, and nothing is being done.”
“Are you registered to vote?” Grossman asked.
“No,” Ortiz said, and accepted a registration form. He lives in Fort Greene and, until recently, sold cleaning supplies to landlords and worked for FreshDirect.
“What are you pretrial for?” Grossman asked.
“Sale of drugs,” Ortiz said. He checked the box to enroll as a Democrat. “I’ve just never voted in my life,” he continued. “But I do care, you know, and I can remember joking in the hallway of where I lived about Trump becoming President. And then, when he got elected, it wasn’t funny no more. It wasn’t a joke anymore.”
Ortiz said he supports Cuomo in the governor’s race. “He speaks up a lot for the poor and the disadvantaged.” As for Nixon, he said, “I just don’t think celebrities should be involved in politics.”
A graying inmate collected an absentee-ballot form and sat down near a wall stencilled with the words “Reading Area.” He said he was interested in Nixon’s candidacy. “Women power is very strong right now,” he added.
Someone suggested that Michelle Obama should run for President. “With Beyoncé as V.P.!”
“When Kanye West runs, I’ll sign up,” an inmate said.
“You might want to register now,” Grossman told him. “So you’re prepared.”