Crime

Inmate in Kansas jail says prisoners weren’t allowed to vote, and now she’s suing

Leavenworth prison audit

Robert Storch, deputy inspector general for the U.S. Dept. of Justice, explains the audit of the Leavenworth Detention Center. Ian Cummings/The Kansas City Star
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Robert Storch, deputy inspector general for the U.S. Dept. of Justice, explains the audit of the Leavenworth Detention Center. Ian Cummings/The Kansas City Star

A privately-run jail in Leavenworth is accused in a lawsuit of systematically denying prisoners their constitutional right to vote.

The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Kansas by a woman who was being detained at the federal Leavenworth Detention Center during the November 2016 general election.

While convicted felons lose the right to vote, Brenda Wood did not fall in that category.

She was awaiting trial and was otherwise an eligible voter, according to her suit, which also seeks class action status to include others in the same situation.

Of the hundreds of prisoners held there at any one time, the majority are not convicted felons, according to the suit.

Wood had been detained at the facility, operated by CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, since late November 2014, and had just voted in the general election that month.

CoreCivic is contracted by the U.S. Marshals Service to run the jail, and most of its inmates are defendants facing trial on federal criminal charges.

According to the suit, the inmate handbook provided to all new detainees did not provide any information about how to vote.

“Indeed, the only reference to ‘voting’ provided to detainees at CCA-Leavenworth is an instruction in the inmate handbook on how to vote for television programs to watch on facility TVs,” the lawsuit alleges.

When Wood contacted staff and asked for help in obtaining an advance ballot to vote, she alleges, she was told, “We don’t do that here.”

She said that several other follow-up requests she made were also denied.

And her experience was not unique, according to the suit.

“Detainees at CCA-Leavenworth would routinely ask for access to vote or for help obtaining an advance ballot, and such requests were routinely denied,” the suit alleges. “Indeed, defendants’ voter suppression was a common grievance discussed in the population of detainees.”

According to the suit, the Leavenworth County Election Office has never received a request from the facility for an absentee ballot.

The suit maintains that there are potentially hundreds of other detainees that the suit could apply to, who at the time were:

U.S. citizens; Kansas residents; 18 or older; not serving sentences for felony convictions; registered voters or people who had been denied the chance to register; and had not voted previously in the 2016 election.

CoreCivic addressed the suit in a written statement Friday:

“While we can’t speak to the specifics of pending or active litigation, we respect the rights of all those entrusted to our care and fully support every eligible individual’s right to vote. CoreCivic has no role in determining the voting eligibility of anyone in our care.”

Jail inmates around the country have filed similar lawsuits, and Wood’s suit cites previous U.S. Supreme Court cases that upheld the rights of eligible voters in jail at the time of an election.

“In decision after decision, this court has made clear that a citizen has a constitutionally protected right to participate in elections on an equal basis with other citizens in the jurisdiction,” according to a 1972 Supreme Court opinion.

Wood’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages as a result of the alleged constitutional violations. A lawsuit similar to Wood’s, also seeking monetary compensation, was filed in 2017 by inmates at a county jail in Indiana at the time of the 2016 election.

The federal judge presiding over that case ruled in May that the suit could go forward as a class action representing several hundred inmates at the jail at the time of the 2016 election.

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