Ex-Drug War Prisoner Votes for First Time

By Seth Ferranti 11/09/16

For me recovery isn't just about using drugs, its about acclimating myself to the world, becoming a tax-paying citizen and basically living life in a legitimate way.

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Ex-Drug War Prisoner Votes for First Time
Being able to vote is about my acceptance back into society.

I got out of prison in January 2015 after serving 21 years of a 25-year sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense. After completing a six-month stay in the halfway house, I was on federal probation for a year before finally being set free—or as free as you can be in this modern world of work, finances, social media and responsibility. I got clean and sober in prison, and even though I started drinking and using marijuana socially, once I stopped getting urine tested by the feds, I finally feel like I’m in recovery. Because for me, it's not just about using drugs, its about acclimating myself to the world, becoming a tax-paying citizen and basically living life in a legitimate way—instead of pursuing criminal ventures, which are addictive in their own right.

That’s why voting for the first time ever was important to me.

As an ex-con, I didn’t even think I could get my voting rights restored. I’d heard all the horror stories about how the government made it difficult for returning citizens to register. I understood it was up to the individual state that you resided in, but it seemed to me that most states made ex-offenders jump through hoops to re-establish their right. Other ex-cons told me it wasn’t worth the effort. Disenfranchised and locked away, I felt like a statistic, like my vote didn’t matter. Stories about having to get the governor's approval, waiting years to get the paperwork processed, and being run through the ringer had me doubting my ability to even get the process started.

Being an ex-con has made me feel like an outsider. It’s a stigma as bad as "junkie." All the stages I’ve gone through as a returning citizen have been a recovery in itself. Being able to vote is about my acceptance back into society. I’d already thrown off the shackles of my drug addiction, dope trafficking and subsequent imprisonment, but now I wanted to re-affirm my right to be a part of the political process and live a law-abiding life. Before, I was a counterculture rebel living off the grid who dealt in cash, marijuana and LSD. Dodging police, flouting the law, and reveling in my notoriety as an outlaw. Voting was the last thing that crossed my mind because I made my own rules and tread my own path. But now, it’s different.

It’s about my ability to continue the process of returning to society. To me, that means going through all the steps to become a citizen again. And since I made the choice in prison that drugs and criminality were not in my future, the next logical step was to get my voting rights back. I wanted to have a voice in the process of democracy. I wanted to be a regular person—not a statistic, not a drug addict, not a criminal or ex-con. Because my recovery is not just about drugs. My recovery is about adapting back to society and life in the real world.

I hadn't even began to look into the process of restoring my voting rights in Missouri, where I live with my wife. To me it was an afterthought. I thought I needed a lawyer or money or something, but amazingly, the process was relatively easy. At my wife’s urging, I filled out a voting registration form, and surprisingly it didn’t have any questions about whether I’d been convicted of a felony or not. I found that odd, since even job applications ask that. I knew about the Ban the Box movement, but I didn’t know it made its way to the voting process. I filled out the form and sent it off a month before the election. I never thought it would go through in time or be allowed once they did a background check on me, but a week before the election I got my voter registration card in the mail.

At first I figured they must have missed something. I felt like I was doing something wrong or illegal by being approved to vote. Was this really happening? I asked myself. Or was this some strange alternate reality? But with legal marijuana, President Obama granting clemency to drug war lifers, and Congress talking prison reforms, anything was possible. It was a changing world, and me getting my voting rights back so easily is perfect proof of that. But to be sure, I looked up the statutes governing ex-felons and voting in Missouri.

“The right to vote is automatically restored upon final discharge from sentence, including probation or parole (unless the crime was connected to the exercise of the right of suffrage). Mo. Rev. Stat. 5 115.133(2). The right to hold office is restored upon completion of sentence (unless the crime was connected to the exercise of the right of suffrage). Mo. Rev. Stat. 5 561.02 1 (2), (3). Felons are permanently disqualified from jury service, unless pardoned. Mo. Rev. Stat. 5 561.026(3),” the guidelines read. So not only was I eligible to vote, I can run for office too. Imagine that, Senator Seth Ferranti. Not that I have any plans to run for office, but it's nice to know that I can if I’m so inclined.

Even as I stood in line at the voting poll, I thought the fix was in and the jack-booted DEA thugs were ready to jump out and apprehend me. How dare you vote, ex-felon and marijuana smoker? Because I was taught in prison that criminals and drug addicts don’t count. With the War on Drugs and policies of mass incarceration, myself and many others have just been thrown away. Call me paranoid or whatever, but it's hard to shake the stigma of being an ex-con, no matter how hard I strive to blend in and be accepted by society. My wife and I waited in line for 20 minutes and then the moment of truth had arrived. With my voter registration and ID in hand, I walked up to get my ballot.

As they scanned my card and checked my ID, I stood there nervously. My mind screamed, “Addict, drug dealer, ex-con,” but the guy asked, “First time voter?” A little skeptical, I felt as he eyed me up and down. But he gave me the ballot and I was off, searching for my wife in the crowd. Luckily I got the booth right next to my wife. She was giving me instructions on who and what to vote for locally, I don’t keep up with that type of stuff. We’d talked about who we liked for president, but it was still up in the air. I looked all around, scanning the area as I did when I was in prison, keeping an eye on who was around me and where the C/O’s were.

Everyone was doing their civic duty as citizens of the United States of America. A welcome change for me. Branded as “drug addict,” “narco dealer,” “scum,” “convict”—I was ready to be a responsible, grateful and contributing member of society. Getting my life back on track has been a struggle, but at least as a reintegrating citizen I’m not in some in-between place, ready to get snatched back to prison. I’m a legit individual with prospects. Only two years out and I’m working hard, enjoying life and planning for the future.

All this hit me as I stared at the ballot. Hillary Clinton? Donald Trump? Libertarian? I’ve never been political, but this election seemed extremely polarizing to me. I would say I come from a typical Democratic suburban background, but I’m a little more liberal in my views—the type of person who thinks legalizing certain drugs with medicinal value like marijuana and possibly even LSD is the right direction to go. So which candidate speaks for me? None, necessarily.

I don’t mind the idea of a woman president, but I don’t like the Clintons. When I went to federal prison in 1993 there were maybe 40 to 50 prisons in the federal system. By the time Bill Clinton got out of office, there were 100 or more new federal prisons, all built under Clinton’s watch. And Donald Trump? I admire him in some ways, even if he comes off like a moron. At least he’s not a career politician like everyone else in government. But that's a whole other issue. I decided to finally make my mark on the ballot for Gary Johnson. Trump supporters would say that’s a vote for Hillary, but that’s my choice. I voted Libertarian for a couple of other candidates too, and I said it was time for every judge to go.

As I walked out of the voting place I felt human. It’s hard to explain, but when you’ve been considered a “worthless addict" or “reckless criminal" or “conniving drug dealer,” it was a welcome respite. There are lots of things to recover from, and I’ve recovered from a few myself—including drugs and/or alcohol, which I used to self-destruct my life as a teenager—but coming back into society and being accepted by it is still foreign to me.

I’m getting used to it, but recovery in this regard is a day-by-day process which just took a huge step forward. Even though I still feel like they’re out to get me.

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