To celebrate the work of our Honors faculty and their ongoing commitment to the Vincentian mission of community service, I decided to reach out to Professor Christina Rivers.
Dr. Rivers teaches in the Honors Program as well as in DePaul’s Department of Political Science. She also teaches as part of DePaul’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, where she works with students in the Stateville Correctional Center. Beyond teaching at DePaul, Dr. Rivers also participates in local activism for voting accessibility and rights for the incarcerated. In 2019, she was a collaborator on the Re-Entering Citizens Civic Education Act, which mandates civic education programs for those released from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
I asked Professor Rivers a few questions about her work and what community activism means to her:
Can you tell me when and how you got started in abolition work?
The bulk of my scholarship has been on voting rights and representation for groups whose political power has been suppressed. Around 2007 I started to learn more about felony disenfranchisement, i.e. state laws that do not allow those with a felony conviction to vote during incarceration or sometimes after they’ve completed their sentence. In 2016 two other big doors opened for me: 1) I began to volunteer to register eligible voters and observe elections at Cook County jail and 2), I taught my first class with DePaul’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Stateville Correctional Center.
Interacting with those who are directly impacted by felony disenfranchisement or lack of voter access while in jail is when I really began to learn about the impact of mass incarceration and conviction on democracy. Their insights reveal that a good deal of scholarly research on these issues really misses the point.
I’m still trying to figure out how I define “abolition” in this context. It’s not nearly as cut-and-dried as the abolition of chattel slavery. Perspectives vary widely among both incarcerated and free people about how to hold those who commit harm—including police and prosecutorial abuses—accountable. There’s also much debate about what a more just, restorative, and humane system of accountability would look like. For now, I’m learning a great deal from these debates.
What do you think are some commonly held misconceptions about both voting and incarceration?
One of the most pervasive misperceptions is that all who are or have been incarcerated are politically apathetic or ignorant. This is simply not true! The story of Florida’s Amendment 4, which in 2018 eliminated permanent disfranchisement for most felonies, is a great example of civic activism by those with a felony record. That initiative was run entirely by citizens with felony convictions who wanted to regain their voting rights. In 2019 incarcerated alumni of DePaul’s Inside-Out courses wrote a law mandating voter education as part of the exit process from the Illinois Department of Corrections. Many are now advocating for the right to vote while in prison.
In 2016, local boards of elections and civil rights organizations began to conduct in-person elections at Cook County jail for the first time in decades. Turnout at the jail has exceeded Chicago’s voter turnout at least twice since then! Turnout there over the past two weekends of early voting looks promising as well.
Responses to a small survey conducted by inside students at Stateville, and to two large surveys by The Marshall Project and Initiate Justice revealed significant degrees of civic and political engagement amongst those who’ve been incarcerated. Recent research also demonstrates positive correlations between voting and civic engagement, successful re-entry from prison, and lower rates of recidivism. This really calls the stereotype of political apathy into question.
Another misconception is that people convicted of a felony can never vote again. That was once the case in many states, particularly in the south. But felony disenfranchisement laws vary widely among states: at one extreme are the few states that impose permanent bans for the most serious offenses and at the other are two states that allow voting while in prison.
What do you think is the origin of these misconceptions and how have you sought to combat them through your work?
For the most part, prisons and jails are remote– the incarcerated are literally hidden–and those who’ve re-entered society are still excluded from many aspects of society. So [their right to vote]’s not really been on the public or academic radar until awareness of the challenges started to gain traction around 2010.
I also think that the tough-on-crime rhetoric that has dominated for the past 40 years or so has cemented the idea that those who’ve broken the law are simply beyond redemption, rehabilitation, or second chances and have abdicated their right to vote.
What are some challenges that you’ve encountered while working to advocate for the rights of incarcerated citizens?
I expected to encounter a lot of opposition from individuals but that hasn’t happened, at least not so far. I’m very grateful for the support I’ve received at DePaul, as well as from some who are victims of harm, and some who work in carceral spaces.
That said, prison and jail logistics pose big challenges. Carceral spaces are by nature very bureaucratic and rule-bound, and they tend to operate slowly. Some of the rules seem to make little sense and can be really frustrating. Some administrators are hostile to college opportunities for incarcerated people. This can seriously undermine programming, not to mention morale.
The incomplete implementation of reforms is another challenge. Illinois’ laws mandating voter education in prison and voter access in jail were stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic three months after they went into effect. Implementation is improving now, but it’s nowhere near complete and is prone to being undermined by individual staff.
It’s a challenge to stay motivated despite the logistical hurdles, which really intensified with the pandemic. While this work is extremely fulfilling, it can be emotionally and physically exhausting, and at times infuriating. So balancing all of that can be tricky.
You helped draft the Re-Entering Citizens Civic Education Act which was passed in 2019. Do you see a path for similar legislation to pass federally? Have you seen increased momentum for incarceration reform nationally?
Several states have been relaxing their felony disenfranchisement laws. I just learned today that Minnesota is close to passing a law that would expand voter eligibility for those with a felony conviction. Florida, California, Iowa, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama passed similar laws a few years ago.
There is also increased momentum on the part of civil rights, voting rights, and re-entry organizations. More of these efforts are being led by those who are directly impacted, rather than solely by others advocating on their behalf. I think this is a great and much-needed development.
Given that tough-on-crime rhetoric has resurged in some places and that Congress is so hyper-partisan, I’m not optimistic right now about a federal path to restoring voting rights in general, and especially not for those with a criminal history. I think there have been a couple of bills on the issue, but to my knowledge, they haven’t gone anywhere.
In your course, Politics and Social Justice in the US, you discuss public policies around housing, voting right, healthcare access, employment, and the legal system. How do you think the course materials reflect on the history and contemporary politics of Chicago?
Chicago has a particularly painful history of inequities in housing, education, and criminal justice/policing. Several of the course readings engage this history. The course will also feature guest speakers who are local activists and legislators.
In the spirit of the Vincentian mission, what are ways that you think young people can help push for voting and incarceration reform?
First, I’m extremely encouraged by DePaul students’ commitment to justice and Vincentian humanism. The current energy and innovation around the mission seem to be the most vibrant in the 20+ years I’ve been here. This is truly remarkable, given that we’re still in a very draining pandemic moment.
Young people in Chicago are pushing for voting and incarceration reform via campus organizations and working with community organizations. I’ve been fortunate to work with DePaul Students Against Incarceration and the local organization Chicago Votes (the latter of which boasts 3 DePaul alumni on their staff, two of whom I think were in the Honors Program!) One of the things I love most about working with these orgs is the role reversal. They are the policy experts, and I’m the student. I feel like I’m learning way more from them than they’d ever learn from me. These collaborations have strengthened my scholarship and teaching (I think!) and are among the most rewarding aspects of my work at DePaul.
Thank you to Dr. Rivers for taking the time to answer my questions!
Professor Rivers will be teaching an HON 302 Seminar in Social Justice course next quarter titled, “Politics and Social Justice in the US”. The course will cover the idea of social justice as it relates to issues in the United States like healthcare inequality, voting rights, housing access, and more. To learn more about this course and our other Spring Quarter offerings, visit our Courses page.
Leave a Reply