My name is Anthony Pickens. I’m an activist, a husband and father, a legal assistant at the Oregon Justice Resource Center—and a formerly incarcerated person.
I lost my right to vote when I was incarcerated at age 15. Back then, I wasn’t thinking about voting. Only later would I truly understand how much disenfranchisement would affect me and my family.
For nearly 25 years, I could only watch from the sidelines as elections were held, policies were passed, and candidates were appointed to office—and I didn’t have a voice.
Unfortunately, my experience isn’t unique. Every day, millions of Americans are left behind by our criminal-legal system, removed from their communities, and stripped of the opportunity to participate in our democracy.
The majority of incarcerated individuals will re-enter society. That’s a fact. So we need to ask ourselves: How will we allow people to come back into society and truly belong? Through incarceration, your liberties are taken away. You’re shut out from the world. It’s easy to feel like the community you’re about to come back to doesn’t accept or want you.
One of the things I often say is that when you allow people to be involved in their communities, they’re more likely to feel like they belong and when you feel like you belong to almost anything, you want to tend and nurture your community. Being able to vote is a big step towards that.
And it’s important to understand: the majority of incarcerated individuals want to participate in democracy. Those on the inside want the opportunity to advocate not just for themselves but for the ones we love.
It’s particularly hard as a parent to know that, while incarcerated, you can’t advocate for your children, who are in many ways as voiceless as you are when they’re under voting age. There were many times where I wanted to vote on policies that I knew would help my daughter, but couldn’t.
When I got my first voter registration card, I was so excited, I jumped up and down in front of the mailbox. Holding the card in my hands with tears in my eyes, I was in shock that this little piece of paper meant I could exercise my right to vote. For years, this was only a moment I could dream about. Now, it’s finally a reality.
I can’t wait to officially get involved in our democracy and have my voice be one of the many that’s heard. And with my vote, I have the opportunity to be a voice out here for a lot of the guys that are still left behind inside.