Clinton Drake’s story is from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, pp. 159-160.
Drake, a fifty-five-year-old African American man in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested in 1988 for possession of marijuana. Five years later, he was arrested again, this time for having about $10 worth of the drug on him. Facing between ten and twenty years in prison as a repeat offender, Drake, a Vietnam veteran and, at the time, a cook on a local air force base, took his public defender’s advice and accepted a plea bargain. Under the plea agreement, he would “only” have to spend five years behind bars. Five years for five joints.
Once released, Drake found he was forbidden by law from voting until he paid his $900 in court costs — an impossible task, given that he was unemployed and the low-wage jobs he might conceivably find would never allow him to accumulate hundreds of dollars in savings. For all practical purposes, he would never be able to vote again. Shortly before the 2004 presidential election, he said in despair:
I put my life on the line for this country. To me, not voting is not right; it led to a lot of frustration, a lot of anger. My son’s in Iraq. In the army just like I was. My oldest son, he fought in the first Persian Gulf conflict. He was in the Marines. This is my baby son over there right now. But I’m not able to vote. They say I owe $900 in fines. To me, that’s a poll tax. You’ve got to pay to vote. It’s “restitution”, they say. I came off parole on October 13, 1999, but I’m still not allowed to vote. Last time I voted was in ’88. Bush versus Dukakis. Bush won. I voted for Dukakis. If it was up to me, I’d vote his son out this time too. I know a lot of friends got the same cases I got, not able to vote. A lot of guys doing the same things like I was doing. Just marijuana. They treat marijuana in Alabama like you committed treason or something. I was on the 1965 voting rights march from Selma. I was fifteen years old. At eighteen, I was in Vietnam fighting for my country. And now? Unemployed and they won’t allow me to vote.
* Quoted from Sasha Abramsky, Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, And Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House, p. 224.