Florida group nominated for Nobel Peace Prize helps former inmates regain their dignity

Desmond Meade in front of a wall painted with the FRRC logo.
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, in 2021. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

More than 650,000 ex-offenders are released from prison every year, according to the Justice Department, and about two-thirds of people who have been incarcerated are likely to be rearrested within three years of their release.

But over the years, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) has worked to solve problems exacerbated by disenfranchisement and discrimination among the formerly incarcerated. In 2018, the coalition led the effort to pass Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for 1.4 million people in Florida with felony convictions.

This year, the group has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker organization that nominated Martin Luther King Jr. for the award.

For Desmond Meade, the executive director of the coalition, helping the estimated 30,000 prisoners released in Florida every year to return to society is a personal mission to change the narrative and carve a path of redemption for people who have been incarcerated.

Desmond Meade, looking thrilled, puts his arm around David Ayala, who is shouting with joy. Each is holding a form.
Meade and David Ayala, a member of the FRRC and both returning citizens, celebrate with copies of their voter registration forms after registering in 2019. (John Raoux/AP)

“Once a person is convicted of, say, a felony offense, then they're forced to wear the 'scarlet letter' for the rest of their lives,” Meade explained to Yahoo News. “They're referred to as felons or ex-felons. In that reference, what a lot of people don't realize is that we lose some of the humanity, and we seem to sometimes forget that these are people's mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, loved ones. People who've made mistakes.

“To get all of this kind of recognition is mind-blowing, but I can't help but to think it's for a reason. And I think that one of the main reasons is to elevate the story of redemption and the story of love that this country needs to hear more often than the story of hatred and division and fear.”

The coalition has worked with lawmakers, policymakers and corporations as a conduit between decision makers and returning citizens vying for a second chance. In addition to campaigning for Amendment 4 and raising funds to pay for restitution, fines and fees, the group has partnered with Google to provide digital training skills for people impacted by incarceration, as well as creating bail and legal defense funds for people unjustly arrested for voting. It also advocates for rehabilitation reform to provide access to opportunities and basic needs that are vital to a successful reentry into society.

“The idea that people with past convictions can be heroes for our society and come up with ways that actually make things better is such an encouragement to anyone who's getting out, anyone who's fighting to get that job, who's struggling to find housing,” said Meade, who is a husband and father, a graduate of the Florida International University College of Law and the winner of multiple humanitarian awards. “We know that this is fuel to the fire of a movement that's transforming not just public policy, but transforming people's hearts and minds along the way.”

Meade took over as president of the FRRC in 2009, and is also the chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a political action committee. A native of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands who was raised in Miami, he was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army for stealing to support a drug addiction and was sentenced to three years in a military brig. After moving back to Florida, he went to jail several times for felony cocaine possession, and finally returned to society in 2004, after being convicted of possession of a firearm as a felon.

Desmond Meade looks at one of a stack of red T-shirts printed: Let My People Vote, FRRC, 2022 Advocacy.
Meade inspects T-shirts printed for the organization in 2021. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

“I faced hundreds upon hundreds of collateral consequences because of my previous felony convictions,” Meade reflected. “So this was something that was personal. At first, you couldn't convince me that this wasn't more than just an African American issue. Because in my community, I'm just thinking there's only Black people that I'm seeing or hearing about. But me traveling through Florida opened my eyes and made me realize that this is bigger than just the African American issue. This was an all-American issue, people from all walks of life.”

In 2015, Meade met Neil Volz, now the deputy director of the FRRC, who identifies as a conservative. Volz, a former senior aide to ex-Rep. Robert W. Ney, R-Ohio, had left Congress to become a lobbyist and pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiring to influence the Ohio congressman’s official actions corruptly. Volz finished serving his sentence in 2011. He now uses his decades of experience in politics as a community advocate to push legislation forward for the FRRC.

“I was helping to run a homeless shelter in a drug and alcohol recovery program, engaged in second-chance work, rebuilding my own life,” Volz told Yahoo News.

He called his meeting with Meade a “God-ordained moment.”

“I had to fight back this kind of urge at the very beginning where I was like, ‘Man, this feels kind of progressive,’ which wasn't necessarily my scene. Then Des started talking, and I immediately just made a human connection to him, to the movement, and to this bigger, deeper fight that's going on around human dignity and our belief in the shared values of second chances and forgiveness and redemption.”

Permon Thomas, Neil Volz and Lance Wissinger clasp hands, as Thomas delivers a prayer.
Permon Thomas, left, prays with Neil Volz, center, and Lance Wissinger in 2019 before Volz and Wissinger register to vote for the first time since they had felony records. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida, the state with the third-largest prison population in the U.S., with over 87,000 in state prison and thousands more incarcerated in Florida jails, was one of four states with a lifetime voting ban of people convicted of felony offenses.

“We felt that no politician, no matter what their political preferences were, should have that much power to decide which American citizens can vote and which American citizens can't vote,” Meade said. “So we created an alternative pathway, to where any American citizen who had made a mistake had an opportunity to be able to vote again without having to beg a politician for that.”

Meade mobilized efforts under his political committee, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, and surpassed the 766,200 signatures required to get Amendment 4 on the 2018 ballot.

“I had to create this as an entity, and I had to be the one to lead, because the other folks, no matter how well intentioned they were, weren't suffering the pain like I was,” he said. “They were able to vote. I wasn't. They were able to move on with their lives. Florida by itself accounted for one-quarter of the total number of people in this entire country who could not vote because of that. That policy was a remnant of the Jim Crow era.”

“The effort was led by returning citizens, people with past convictions,” Volz added. “Des was the head of the movement, and I know myself and other returning citizens helped implement that. The linchpin of the work was the families and loved ones and returning citizens all across the state of Florida who built this grassroots movement and this network that still exists for a better society, a more vibrant democracy and a society that sees people as people, not simply the worst thing that they've ever done, and have had the opportunity to walk that out.”

Wissinger and Volz shake hands in front of a door saying: Register to Vote Here! Lee County.
Wissinger and Volz after turning in their voter registration forms at the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office in 2019. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The amendment was passed on Nov. 6, 2018, with nearly 65% of Floridians voting in favor of the measure. The FRRC calls the victory “the largest expansion of freedom and democracy in a generation in the United States.”

“I'm seeing on Election Day, a young man, probably, I think in his late 20s,” Meade recalled. “He was a guy on Facebook Live and talked about how all these years he had been watching people vote and had actually been jealous of them. This young man, with tears in his eyes, crying, said, ‘But now today, I actually got to be a part of something bigger than me.’ Stories like that, it not only just motivates us, it compels us to continue it.”

Although the effort ended the lifetime ban, over 750,000 of those with past convictions were ineligible in 2020 to cast ballots because of outstanding fines and fees. That barrier was put in place when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in 2019 that banned those with previous convictions from voting until their court-related debts were paid off. According to the coalition, paying off those debts can be unattainable for many returning citizens given their low incomes before, during and after incarceration and/or community supervision.

“We surveyed thousands of returning citizens,” Volz said. “We've had chapter meetings. We focus group one-on-one conversations with individuals and put a policy platform together. It really falls into some basic buckets. One is breaking down barriers to economic mobility. That means jobs, access to capital, access to housing, higher education and also access to democracy. All those things are things that we're working on at the local level and the state level.”

To overcome the barrier, the coalition raised $30 million to help 40,000 people across Florida regain their voting eligibility, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Meade and Volz get out of a van saying: Amendment Tour, Our Vote, Our Voice, Out Time; Need Help With Fines, www.floridarrc.com.
Meade and Volz arrive at Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa in October 2020 to discuss how the Fines and Fees program will help returning citizens and the surrounding community. (Martha Asencio Rhine/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire)

“It's a natural human instinct to want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves,” Meade said. “To strip that hope and opportunity away from people is so inhumane. So when we talk about fighting for voting rights for folks, it goes beyond something that's political. We're fighting for the reaffirmation of people's position or role within a society that they live in. They are someone of substance, in spite of whatever mistake that they made. They're needed, too, for us to have a democracy. It's beneficial to their community as a whole.”

Before being convicted, people who are later incarcerated are more likely to lack access to quality education and good jobs. A 2015 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative found that incarcerated people between the ages of 27 and 42 had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration, 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. Additionally, in the five years after being imprisoned, over 60% of returning citizens remain without a job, even though they are actively looking, or underemployed, which can increase the chances of recidivism.

The coalition plans to introduce legislation to the Florida Legislature when it reconvenes this month, to address housing barriers for returning citizens and liability issues for landlords. Its agenda for this legislative session also includes introducing legislation to allow returning citizens to be granted occupational licenses, and providing current and formerly incarcerated people an opportunity to obtain Florida residency for tuition purposes. The FRRC is also continuing the work of improving systems surrounding voting rights.

“We should not be defined by our weakest moment at the worst time in our lives,” Meade said. “Once you start looking at people with felony convictions as people first, instead of felons first, then it's so much easier to understand the need to help facilitate successful reentry. So people can get jobs, housing, and move on with their lives and participate or be a part of democracy.

“This recognition of this nomination really helps elevate a narrative that says, 'Look at what those guys are doing,'” Meade continued. “'They're engaging in connecting people along the lines of humanity in a way that doesn't further divide our country. They're not being fueled by hatred, but they're being fueled by love and are engaging in the way that brings our country, brings our community together across partisan and racial lines, across socioeconomic lines.'”