OPINION: Chris Kelly Opinion: Voting behind bars

May 14—Focus groups have long been a staple of politics. Registered voters are carefully selected according to reliable markers — age, occupation, party affiliation, etc. — and gathered in rooms where consultants ask questions to divine the likes and dislikes of the expansive electorate. Republicans, Democrats and independents are usually represented in the groups, which often skew blue collar. If you want to know what the "Average American" wants in a leader, ask a bricklayer, boilermaker, electrician or public school teacher, goes the thinking. Retirees are always welcome, too.

Inmates never get an invite.

"I am a U.S. citizen," Kevin Combs said Thursday after voting for the first time. The 45-year-old Scranton man was among seven Lackawanna County Prison inmates who cast mail-in ballots into a locked drop box bound for the county election bureau.

"I have a right to vote," Combs said. "That vote belongs to me. It's personal to me."

Journalists rarely get invites to prisons. However, Warden Tim Betti welcomed Sunday Times Staff Writer Terrie Morgan-Besecker, Staff Photographer Chris Dolan and me to witness a first-in-county history and a win for representative democracy.

State law allows inmates to vote if they are serving a misdemeanor sentence or awaiting trial on a felony charge. Security measures in the prison's mail system blocked access to paper ballots, so inmates couldn't vote. Betti, Department of Elections Director Beth Hopkins and other county officials worked together to change that.

Credit where it's due: County officials were under no legal obligation to make this happen. The warden and Hopkins responded to relentless public advocacy with an innovative official action.

Bev DeBarros and other volunteers supplied the advocacy. They registered 57 inmates. Of those, 21 sought mail-in ballots. Of those, 11 were eligible to vote. Two of the remaining 10 were released from prison and another decided not to vote. The seven who did thanked "Miss Beverly" for her persistence in making their votes count.

"I've voted all my life," DeBarros told me, declining to divulge her age. "When I first voted, you had to be 21, and I had to walk a half a mile and carry my three babies to vote."

As the inmates gathered in an empty dormitory to cast ballots, Betti thanked DeBarros for her informing inmates of their Constitutional rights and working to secure an opportunity to exercise them.

"If you didn't help us with this, maybe one person might have asked about an absentee ballot," the warden said. "This way, at least we know eight people expressed interest and they're able to participate, so thank you, Bev."

Afterward, the warden and DeBarros joined our impromptu "focus group" of four inmates — Jonathan Bush, 31, William Hill, 51, James Hankins, 31, and Combs. It was the best time you can have in a prison.

The only regular voter in the group was Bush. He said he didn't know he could still vote while incarcerated and, like the other inmates, called DeBarros' persistence an inspiration.

"It shows that if you're willing to change something and you keep at it, anything is possible," Bush said.

"Change" was a dominant theme.

"You want to vote to try to change things that affect you," Combs said. "Given the opportunity, I seized it. If you want the system to change, I have to be dedicated and show a good-faith effort that I'm going to change. You've got to take the first step. For me, this is the first step."

Hankins — also a first-time voter — agreed.

"It's a step in the right direction," he said, likening his vote to a link connecting him to the community outside the prison's walls. "Having a sayso in who gets in (elected) is something I never had growing up and being in jail. This is my first opportunity to vote."

That Hankins and the others seized the opportunity provides a powerful example to other inmates, Hill said.

"I'm around a lot of young guys in here and they really have a lot of distrust for the system," he said. "I try to lead by example, and when they see us voting and see our votes being counted, see that you really have a choice, they'll come around, too."

It was striking how similar the inmates' concerns were to those of the bricklayers, boilermakers, electricians, teachers and retirees who usually fill focus groups. Education and the economy came up. School shootings. Institutional racism. The ever-deepening divide between Americans who hate each other over politics.

All four inmates said Americans need to treat each other with more tolerance and respect.

"This is our country," Combs said. "It belongs to you, it belongs to me. It's for everybody. It's for us. We need to stop attacking one another and try to find common ground."

"And just because we're in here doesn't make us any less human," Hankins added.

Not everyone in prison has been convicted. Some are awaiting trial and couldn't make bail. This was the first time I spoke with inmates and didn't ask about their charges or convictions. We were there to witness them vote. They were U.S. citizens exercising their rights. Nothing more. Nothing less.

"They all learned the process and the difference between the primary and the general election and they'll use what they learned on the outside," DeBarros said. They all know the importance of the individual races, especially the commissioners' race."

A majority of commissioner candidates seem not to see the "prison vote" as important. All were invited to a recent meeting at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Scranton. The gathering was intended to make candidates "aware of all the many responsibilities commissioners have as managers of the prison," DeBarros said.

Three showed up — Republicans Laureen Cummings and Brian Reap and Democrat Matt McGloin, she said. Our focus group said the "prison vote" will be harder to ignore in November and in election years to come.

"When we go back to the block, this is going to be a topic of conversation," Hankins said. The guys will be like, 'Wow, they actually let us do it.' "

We agreed to reconvene our focus group in November. Some or all of these inmates may be free by then, but because of the example they set, there should be plenty of registered voters in the prison this fall.

CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, encourages you to vote in Tuesday's election. Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.com/kelly.

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kellysworld @timesshamrock.com; @cjkink on Twitter; Chris Kelly, The Times-Tribune on Facebook.