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Librarian Protects Voting Rights of Incarcerated Youth

13 November 2008 4 Comments

Story by Linsay Rousseau Burnett

Hollywood often stereotypes librarians as mousy women in horn-rimmed glasses who hide behind books. But the work of a librarian is not limited to searching databases and silencing noisy patrons. As mandated by the Young Adult Services Association (part of the American Library Association), an element of advocacy underlies the work that librarians do. For one Alameda County Librarian, she took the mandate of advocacy to heart to ensure that her patrons, the inmates of the Alameda Juvenile Detention Hall, were not disenfranchised during the 2008 Presidential Election.

As the Write-to-Read coordinator for the Alameda County juvenile justice program, Amy Cheney spends most of her days at the juvenile detention hall in San Leandro. Write-to-Read brings library services, programs and literacy to incarcerated youth. Because they are minors, these offenders were unable to comment for this report.

As the election approached, Cheney said that her job as a librarian was to provide these incarcerated youth with the voter registration forms and election information that would have been available to them at any public library in the free world.

“It wasn’t enough to just give them the registration forms,” she said, “I had to make sure their votes counted because if the registration process isn’t done correctly, they can’t vote.”

Cheney was targeting youth who would turn 18 by Election Day as well as those who were 18 and serving sentences for crimes they committed as a minor.

Cheney said she attended a voter registration program and began volunteering some of her personal time to ensure these youth were able to complete the often confusing registration and ballot-casting process.

Over a period of one month, Cheney said she managed to register every individual in the juvenile justice system who would be eligible to vote on Election Day — roughly 30 people. Of those 30, Cheney said all but ten were released before Election Day, and, she hopes, they received their ballots at home.

For those ten other inmates behind bars, Cheney said, the ballots were supposed to be mailed to them at the detention hall. With the election only two days away, the ballots had still not arrived.

“We had to find out where the ballots went. I asked the kids to call their parents to see if they had them. Then I took all the names and called the registrar of voters,” said Cheney.

Cheney said that the registrar’s office was unable to locate the registration forms without the registration numbers. As it happened, Cheney said she had made copies and given them to the local Wellstone Democratic Club for their records.

Larry Steinhart, who managed the voter registration efforts at the club, said that all registration information was entered into a database. Due to a glitch in the system, Steinhart had to manually search through thousands of entries, but was able to retrieve all but two of the form numbers.

Steinhart said he was happy to help but felt that Cheney was taking on a “Herculean” task. “I thought there was next to no chance that these kids would ever be able to vote from inside the institution. I thought she was out of her mind in a kind of Don Quixote manner, tilting at all the institutional windmills,” he said.

With registration numbers in hand, Cheney said she returned to the registrar’s office and was finally able to ensure that the names were in the system. She also made sure that official ballots were hand-delivered to the juvenile detention hall. Rather than risk the mail, she said that she physically delivered the ballots to the polling place on Election Day.

Cheney said the experience was frustrating. “What if you don’t have an advocate? It really irritates me. This might be human error, but could we not have a better system?” she said.

But Cheney said her effort was worth it. She said there was an overwhelming response to her educational efforts throughout the detention hall and the youth developed an interest in social and political issues that she had never witnessed before.

“Kids were wanting to register [to vote] who weren’t 18 and readership increased throughout the detention hall. I’ve never gotten anyone to read any book about a president. But everyone wanted to read [Barack] Obama’s book. People wanted to read Michael Moore’s ‘Election Guide.’ I even handed out a Nation magazine to a kid,” said Cheney.

Cheney was quick to assert that her efforts were bi-partisan and that she tried to fully explain the positions of the different political parties and both sides of each item on the ballots. She even provided the youth with contact information so they could do their own research in the detention hall’s library and when they were able to make phone calls.

That being said, Cheney said that many of the young offenders were immediately drawn to Barack Obama because they felt they were able to relate to him.

“I feel like they saw themselves [in him] and wanted to vote. It was great,” she said, adding,

“Obama is speaking in a way that youth can understand.  There’s an absolute connection to him, not just because he’s black but because of his circumstances. The fact that he didn’t know his father and was raised by a single mother; the kids in here can relate to that,” she said.

While Steinhart was never able to meet any of the youth, he said that Cheney’s work taught these juvenile offenders that they had an advocate who was willing to work on their behalf and that their voices matter.

“The voting opportunity which Amy provided was a teaching moment in individual exercise of choice and participation in the civic life of their country. Their voices in this election were equally as powerful as yours and mine, which is as it should be in a democracy,” said Steinhart.

Now that the election is over, Cheney said she is trying to make sure the youth understand that they need to re-register whenever they move, and they do so frequently.

Cheney said she continues to find ways to improve the Write-to-Read program, but hopes that with Obama as president, the youths will maintain an interest in current events and learning that many of them did not have before.

“I think his election is going to have a big impact on them and future generations,” she said.

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