Volunteers register county jail inmates to vote

The 2-hour drive signed up 456 voters and took in 700 absentee ballot requests


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The inmates on 6D crowded around plastic tables, chatting, smiling and milling about, while one volunteer at each table handed out forms and answered a flurry of questions.

From the giddy buzz on the cellblock, you might have guessed they were giving away iPods or fresh turkey dinners with all the fixings.

In reality, a correctional officer had just announced over loudspeakers throughout the Allegheny County Jail that anyone who was eligible to vote yesterday could sign up with the visitors coming onto 33 pods, armed with registration materials.

Joni Rabinowitz, a volunteer with Just Harvest, began fielding questions from the red uniformed men she later described as "extremely interested and very eager to participate."

She was there with about 45 others from groups including the Pennsylvania League of Young Voters; Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN; the Community Voters Project; Work for Progress; and Duquesne University nursing and political science students.

Volunteers explained: You can vote if you've been charged with a felony but haven't had your court date yet. You can vote if you're incarcerated on a misdemeanor conviction. You can vote if you've completed your incarceration on felony counts and are in jail awaiting trial on other charges.

Inmates who had already registered at home could fill out absentee voting cards, along with the rest of the jail voters who would all be voting absentee on Election Day.

Spearheaded by inmate program director Jack Pishke, it was the largest registration effort to date at the jail and the only one jail officials knew of statewide, in anticipation of the last registration day: Oct. 6.

In a dizzying two hours, the group helped to complete 456 new registrations and about 700 absentee ballot applications.

Unlike most of the younger volunteers, Ms. Rabinowitz, 67, of Park Place, had been in jail before. She was locked up with a group of organizers for two separate stretches in 1963, after the group was arrested for registering rural black voters in the south with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Those voters, she said, were scared because "they'd never had the right to vote before and we couldn't tell them it wasn't dangerous."

The jail inmates today were just eager. And hopeful.

One young man shouted that he didn't care which party he registered with, he wanted to cast a vote for Sen. Barack Obama.

Several others echoed his sentiment. Correctional Officer George Istik announced with a smile, "I'm still voting for [Sen. John] McCain."

Dale Johnson, 29, of Allentown said he'd been in prison on other charges for the last nine and half years and was very pleased he could finally vote.

"I'm surprised they're allowing Allegheny County Jail inmates to vote. I'm hoping it will count."

Willie L. Jones, 57, of White Oak, who cast his first presidential vote for Lyndon B. Johnson, admitted he was "not really excited" about the candidates but "I'm doing it because it has to be done."

About half of the 93 men on 6D filled out absentee cards with Ms. Rabinowitz.

On 4E, which is a women's pod, where there were 93 inmates, about 43 filled out absentee cards and 16 were new registrants, including several who proudly admitted they were grandmothers.

For weeks, Maj. James Donis said, he's heard prisoners talking about the elections. "They have a vested interest in this election," he said. Of particular interest is the economy and jobs. On the pods, they watch CNN and Fox.

"I had to tell a lot of people they couldn't vote, but most of them already knew they couldn't," said Peter Wast, 18, a Duquesne student who visited another male cellblock.

Another category of people passed up the opportunity, he said. "A lot of people think they're getting out" before Election Day.

The volunteers encouraged these inmates to register now at their home and fill out an absentee ballot just in case.


Gabrielle Banks can be reached at gbanks@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.


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