Dear Prison Society Supporters:
As Pennsylvanians prepare to vote in the primary election May 16, there are concerns about a potential new barrier to exercising the right to vote in jail. In Pennsylvania, anyone not currently serving a felony sentence is eligible to vote, which includes most people in county jails. But the rise of mail scanning policies–where they no longer deliver tangible cards and letters to incarcerated people, only digital copies–introduces a new complication. Since incarcerated people cast their votes on ballots sent through the mail, voting rights advocates worry that the physical ballots may not be delivered.
This unintended consequence of mail scanning policies is another reason jails need to do more to support voting behind bars.
Lackawanna County finds a workaround
This issue came to our attention when The Scranton Times-Tribune reported in April that the Lackawanna County Prison did not have a process in place to ensure that mail ballots would be delivered to incarcerated people. All mail addressed to people incarcerated there, except legal correspondence, must be sent to the address of a third-party company in Maryland that forwards scanned copies, or it will be returned to the sender. At a recent county prison board meeting, a volunteer who helped register 57 voters in the jail raised a concern that mail ballots sent directly to the prison would be rejected. At the time, the Lackawanna County Warden said he would “check into this.”
Since then, the prison and the county elections board have confirmed to the Prison Society that a process is in place to ensure that incarcerated people who applied to vote by mail receive their ballots. County elections officials will hand deliver the ballots directly to incarcerated people, who will then fill out the ballot in a privacy booth and place it in a drop box that election officials will take back with them. “The process will replicate the way it is done at a voting site within the community,” said Colleen Orzel, the deputy warden of operations at the jail. Lackawanna’s deputy director of elections, Glenn Howey, said that the county would be delivering ballots for 10 eligible incarcerated people who had applied for an absentee or mail-in ballot. Going forward, he said, the county will follow this process for voting in the jail.
Jails that lack support for voting may not be prepared
Lackawanna County Prison is just one of about twenty-two county jails that have adopted mail scanning policies in the last few years. More and more jails are following the lead of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which in 2018 started contracting with a company in Florida, Smart Communications, to receive and scan mail addressed to incarcerated people. The DOC’s rationale for the policy is to prevent drugs from entering prisons through the mail, though a recent investigation by PennLive suggests it has done nothing to reduce drug use inside the walls. It does, however, eliminate the tangible connection with loved ones that letters and cards from home represent, taking an emotional toll on incarcerated people.
It may also create another barrier to voting access in counties that don’t have strong policies to support voting in jail. "There are no actual mechanisms in place in the vast majority of counties in Pennsylvania to provide access for [jail] residents to the ballot,” says Nick Pressley, Pennsylvania state director for All Voting is Local, a national organization that advocates for voting rights. The Prison Society worked with All Voting is Local on an analysis last year that found most county jails in Pennsylvania do not have any written policy to support voting in jail. One-third have no established procedures to facilitate voting. As a result, the analysis found, only 52 people in Pennsylvania jails requested mail-in ballots in the 2020 election. Pressley worries that many of these jails won’t have a workaround when mail scanning policies introduce a new wrinkle in the process.
Many counties may not yet have had experience handling mail ballots since introducing mail scanning, since the practice is so new. The warden of the Clearfield County Correctional Facility, Dave Gallagher, said it was the first he was hearing that mail scanning could create a problem for voting in jail when reached by the Prison Society on Wednesday. Gallagher said that his jail, which has a mail scanning policy, would treat ballots as legal mail and see that they were delivered. But none of the 166 people in the jail’s custody had applied for a mail-in ballot, he said.
There are already plenty of other barriers that keep incarcerated people from voting in jail, from misinformation about who is eligible to a lack of support for voter registration behind bars. The Prison Society and All Voting is Local are part of the new Justice Impacted Voter Engagement (JIVE) coalition working to expand voting access among incarcerated people in Pennsylvania. Pressley says the coalition will work to raise more awareness of how mail scanning affects voting in jail before the general election this November.