‘Interesting’ is the repetitive term that comes to mind when I think of my experience on Sunday, January 28. I have volunteered to register voters in Cook County Jail (CCJ) with Chicago Votes before; however, the 28th was the first time the registration took place within the tiers of the jail itself. More commonly, we gather in a multipurpose, windowless room as the correctional officer file in the folks who are currently incarcerated. This time felt different – somehow both a more intimate and a more inhumane look into life at CCJ.

Two other volunteers and myself walked through the halls of the Division 5 male unit (a medium security facility), guided by a guard. We stopped at each tier and had the guards ask those who would like to be registered to step forward. 

In doing so, the proliferating mass of misinformation surrounding voting became tangibly clear. On more than one occasion we clarified with both the guards and those who are currently incarcerated that this was not voting itself – merely registering to vote. Much like a great number of Americans who have never been incarcerated, those who enforce these systems AND those who are directly inflicted by them are often unfamiliar with important election dates and the representatives/legislation involved in the ballots.

Registering the voters themselves brought a variance of reactions on my end, summarized in two points:

1. confirmation: many of the people who are currently incarcerated are unaware they even have a right to vote. Although we often say this when advocating for Chicago Votes work, it holds a different impact witnessing this knowledge being given to an individual. Reminding them of the power they do still have in an environment where so much of it has been restricted is an impactful moment.

2. elation: a select amount of people exclaimed that they have already been registered and vocally prompted others to take advantage of their right. This solidarity and enthusiasm reaffirms the impact Chicago Votes has had through registering CCJ voters monthly!

Aside from the registration process itself, an additional evident layer was directly viewing the conditions in which these men are living. Although we were already aware of how deeply unjust jails and prisons are nation-wide, there was a hue of dehumanization within its aesthetic that provided an eerie feeling. We heard many folks living at CCJ refer to their units as “cages,” of which they appeared incredibly similar to. 

During our 3 hour visit, we saw dinner being served. The portions looked smaller than what’s recommended for the average adult male and quite frankly unappetizing. Certain units complained of not being given fruit like others had. While I understand jails are systems in place to enforce a level of consequence/punishment, it is physically necessary to nourish our bodies in order to think at full capacity. If reflection is what is to be asked of these individuals’ time, it is self-defeating to not provide the chance for complete functioning capacity.

More significantly than all of these environmental factors, I’d like to leave you with the understanding of the humanity who is enduring this. Those whom we were registering had humor and kindness and hope (not that they are required these traits to be deserving of basic respectful treatment). The media often portrays folks who are serving time in jail to be “boogie monster”-esque and so othered from those who have not. They present them as statistics. The reality is each number is an entirely unique person with their very own personality and life story. To think we as a society could speak for this group solely because they are coping through similar experiences, at the very least, simplifies it, at the most, dismisses the individualism that exists. Each person’s voice matters. This is something Chicago Votes has championed since its inception. Being able to come face to face with someone to remind them of that was an honor, especially in this proximity.

Thank you for every opportunity you have given me to further connect with this work since 2020, Chicago Votes. Thank you for taking time out of your day for this piece, Reader. May you utilize your own privileges not to be a voice for the voiceless, but to return the microphone and amplify the takes of those who have historically been spoken for. As Chicago Votes has always said: “democracy works better when more people participate.” Let’s keep moving towards better.