On the morning of November 10th, less than 36 hours after Donald Trump was elected president, I sat in a classroom in Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in the crossfire of a political debate. The teacher and one of her older students who also supported Trump stood on one side of the room, set apart from the majority of the students who certainly did not. The students held their own in the debate: they cited quotes, pointed to specific immigration and reproductive health policies that Trump wanted to enact, and talked passionately about the importance of caring for immigrants, women, and incarcerated people.
The dispute began when the teacher broke up a loud conversation in the back corner of the classroom. The students were supposed to be working on problems from their Geometry and Algebra II textbooks, but instead were talking about their friends who are up for release and people who had been released a few weeks ago. The teacher reminded them that the end of the marking period is in two weeks, and their assignments were all due then, no exceptions. Instead of going back to their work, one of them called to her across the classroom: “Hey Miss, who’d you vote for?” She responded matter-of-factly that she had voted for Donald Trump. Her students laughed. I think they thought she was kidding. Part of me thought that she was kidding, too.
How could a woman whose job is to better the lives of people in prison vote for a man who is a vocal advocate for an expansion of the death penalty, is against lowering sentences, and responds to questions about mass incarceration by saying that we must continue to be tough on crime? Donald Trump is in favor of prison privatization and has named himself the “law and order candidate”—a statement reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, the man who many blame for paving the way for mass incarceration. I found it nearly impossible to believe that the woman who I saw smiling and joking around with her students and carefully walking them through math problems would turn around a vote for a man who may make their lives worse, especially when her students do not have a voice in the election.
Forty-eight states have laws that strip the 6.1 million Americans who have committed felonies of the right to vote. The students at Garden State, according to New Jersey state law, will not be able to vote until the completion of their prison term, parole, and probation. This is better than can be said for people imprisoned in Florida, Mississippi, and eight other states where formerly incarcerated people never regain their right to vote. Even so, the moment of incarceration to the completion of probation can be a significant portion of a person’s life. The men in this classroom were between ages seventeen and twenty-four—many of them were of the age that most people begin their political life by voting for the first time. The knowledge that these men could not vote, cannot vote, may not vote for a very long time, and may not ever vote, made every insightful and thoughtful comment they made about the election painful.
When I arrived at Garden State, I first entered what might be described as the reception area. It was small, with one desk and one metal detector, and only three Corrections Officers (COs) patting people down or checking people in. It was my first time at Garden State, and I was grateful that I did not sense the same tension and suspicion I always felt from COs at the higher security women’s prison I used to visit in California. I walked through a metal detector, stood quietly as I was patted down, and dropped my ID into a box for a Corrections Officer behind plated glass to check against the approved visitors list. Once the three other volunteer tutors and I received our visitor passes, a CO opened the first of two barred doors that marked the transition between prison and the free world.
A staff escort met us and led us through a hallway where men in khaki uniforms stopped mopping the floor and silently waited with their heads down and backs against the wall until we had passed by. We took a right and walked a little further until we were face to face with another barred door. We waited, as we already had several times that morning, until a CO deemed the classroom area safe to open, and we filed in. I was put in classroom number 7, the math and science classroom. It was quite small, with a large desk in the corner for the teacher, a blackboard, and three rows of desks. A series of sample equations for how to convert Celsius to Kelvin were written on the blackboard. I couldn’t help but laugh—the usefulness of this made no more sense to me now than it did in ninth grade physics.
The teacher, a harried middle-aged woman dressed in a black turtleneck and jeans, looked up from the homework she was grading and instructed me to sit at a desk in the front of the room. She had dark hair and olive-tone skin, and her accent told me that she was from the Middle East. She told me that today was a math day, and explained that students would approach my desk if they needed help. As I sat quietly and waited for the students to arrive, I took in the posters on the walls: “Geometry: What’s the Point?” one read. Others offered helpful reminders: “area of a triangle = ½ b x h,” “area of a circle = πr2”. Before long, the students started to shuffle in and grab their textbooks and problem packets from shelves on the right side of the room. I watched and worried about how little math I remember from high school.
I suppose it was naïve of me to arrive at Garden State on the second morning after the election and not consider the possibility that people would talk about politics. There was really no need for me to worry about how much math I remembered—I did not do very much of it.
“If I could vote, I would have voted for him,” the Trump-supporting student said. “I want to make sure that I can get a job when I get out of here. He’s the one who will make that happen.”
“But what about the fact that he disrespects women?” another student retorted. Four or five students nodded, waiting for his answer. The teacher responded in the place of her student by saying that she did not recall Trump saying anything that disrespected women. He did not say anything discriminatory against all women; he only said negative things about Hilary Clinton. Most of the students in the class laughed and looked at each other incredulously.
A couple of students asked their teacher how she can reconcile Donald Trump’s hatred of immigrants like her. She retorted that she has her papers, and that any other immigrant who does not get their papers like she did is a criminal. She had no sympathy for any immigrant who is undocumented—if she had gotten her papers, why couldn’t they?
Eventually, the debate dissolved into four or five different conversations unfolding at the same time. I heard several students laughing about how ridiculous the Billy Bush tapes were. Others cracked jokes about how America had elected a billionaire with no experience in politics. An argument erupted between the teacher and four or five students about abortion, and the students retorted in different ways, but all at the same time and almost yelling, that a woman can choose what she wants to do with her body and that it is not up to the government to decide those things.
Then, during a brief moment of quiet, the same student who had first asked the teacher about her vote said, “He wants to make our lives worse. We can’t vote, and you voted for him?” The room hung in silence—it felt as though he had finally said what everyone had been dancing around the entire time.
The teacher responded confidently that no, Trump was the candidate who would help them most. “What has Hilary said she will do for you?” she asked. I watched the students’ face drop in shock. He shook his head, frustrated and angry, and turned his head back to his geometry textbook.
Another student chimed in, responding that the way he saw it, it didn’t matter much. No one in prison can vote anyway, and they are trapped inside while all of the action happens outside, so what difference does it make? A few students nodded in defeated agreement.
For me, the hardest part of visiting a prison has always been leaving—it’s the awareness I can’t shake when I exit prison walls that I have the freedom to leave, to go home, and everyone I just talked to does not. On that day, leaving was not the hardest part. The hardest part was pairing the reminder that smart, passionate, and capable people have been locked out of our democracy, with the knowledge that America had just elected a president who says “restoring voting rights for felons is ‘crooked politics’.” I wonder if things would have been different if America’s 6.1 million “felons” could vote.