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Politics
11:09 am
Mon October 24, 2011

A Push To Register New Voters Reaches Behind Bars

Originally published on Tue October 25, 2011 5:50 am

Tens of millions of Americans who are eligible to vote are not registered. So before every big election there's a flurry of activity to sign them up.

One South Carolina woman is passionate about registering those who others might ignore. Dr. Brenda Williams, a physician in Sumter, S.C., regularly visits the county jail to sign up inmates.

Williams says it's important for them to become part of the community after they're released. She thinks this will make them less likely to end up back behind bars.

Williams recently made a trip to the Sumter-Lee Regional Detention Center to hand out voter registration cards. She enters what's called the Delta pod, a large gym-like room with metal bunk beds, tables, toilets. About fifty male inmates live there. Many are tattooed and grim-looking. A few shoot hoops on an outside court.

When Williams enters, a female guard tells the men to get behind a red line that borders the room. The doctor is only 4 feet, 11 inches tall, but knows how to take charge. Standing in her white doctor's jacket, she starts to belt out a gospel hymn, "I Know it Was the Blood." She quickly gets the attention of the inmates, who now stand by their bunks.

"Good afternoon, fellas," she calls out.

"Good afternoon," they reply in unison.

"You know, I came last weekend and registered many of you, many of whom decided that you're going to do right," she says, adding that she has something to give them.

"When you hear your name, please come forth and get your voter registration card," says Williams.

One by one, she calls the men forward to receive their cards and a big hug. When each man is called, the other inmates applaud. It's a little like a graduation, except that the graduates wear blue jail outfits and orange rubber shoes.

"Congratulations, sir. You are a registered voter in the United States of America," Williams tells each recipient. Some smile sheepishly.

Williams says for some of these men, registering to vote is one of the few positive things they've done in their lives. It's behavior she wants to encourage.

But South Carolina doesn't allow inmates to vote, unless they're awaiting trial. Once out of jail, felons can vote if they're not on probation and parole. Some states don't allow felons to vote at all. People think they've lost that right. But Williams thinks that just getting them registered gives the inmates something to strive for.

Williams has run a medical clinic in Sumter for 30 years, with her husband, Joe Williams, who is also a physician. The Williamses remember all too well the civil rights battles of the 1960s. They always ask their patients — who are often poor and black — if they're registered to vote.

They believe in treating the whole patient. Brenda Williams says voting increases an individual's feeling of self worth, which is also good for one's physical health.

Among the clinic's workers is 26-year-old Amanda Wolf, who until recently was homeless. She says she's trying to pull her life together. Wolf spent six months in the Sumter-Lee Regional Detention Center for failure to provide child support. She says one bright spot was when Brenda Williams came to register her to vote.

"It was a privilege you know to be able to have the entire pod clap for you as you go up and get your voter registration card," says Wolf. "A little bit of excitement when you feel like all hope is lost."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tens of millions of Americans who are eligible to vote are not registered. So before every big election there's a flurry of activity to sign them up. NPR's Pam Fessler recently traveled to South Carolina and met one woman who is passionate about registering voters in an unusual place.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Attention in the area, attention in the area. I have the voter registration. They'll be going to Delta and Echo. Delta and Echo. You copy, control?

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: This is the Sumter-Lee Regional Detention Center in Sumter, South Carolina, basically the county jail, where inmates serve time for everything from murder to driving without a license. To local physician Brenda Williams, though, they're all potential voters.

DR. BRENDA WILLIAMS: Let's go to Delta first.

FESSLER: That's Delta pod, a large gym-like room with metal bunk beds, tables, toilets and about 50 male inmates milling about. Many are tattooed and grim looking. A few shoot hoops on an outside court.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All right. Feet got to be on the red line for a minute.

FESSLER: A female guard tells the men to get behind a red line that borders the room. They comply - slowly. Brenda Williams is only four feet eleven inches tall, but in her own way she's pretty imposing. She knows how to take charge of a room.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) I know it was blood, I know it was blood, I know it was blood, for me...

FESSLER: It's quite a sight. This small compact woman in her white doctor's jacket belting it out - part-physician, part-preacher. Now she has the inmates' attention.

WILLIAMS: Good afternoon, fellas. Good afternoon. You know, I came last weekend and registered many of you, many of whom are decided that you're going to do right.

FESSLER: And today, she says, she has something to give them.

WILLIAMS: When you hear your name, please come forth and get your voter registration card.

FESSLER: Williams says registering is one of the few positive things some of these men have ever done. It's behavior she wants to encourage.

WILLIAMS: Will Jonathan (unintelligible) please come forth. Y'all give him a hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FESSLER: It's a little like a graduation, only the graduates wear blue jail outfits and orange rubber shoes. The men come up one at a time to get their cards and a big hug.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Next?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Calvin Anderson.

WILLIAMS: Mr. Calvin Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: Congratulations, sir. You are a registered voter in the United States of America.

FESSLER: Although as in most states, South Carolina doesn't allow its inmates to vote unless they're awaiting trial. Felons can only vote if they're no longer on probation or parole. Some states don't allow felons to vote at all. People think they've lost that right. But Williams believes it's important that those behind bars have something to strive for, that they feel they have a stake in the community when they get out, so they don't return.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Good morning, Felsey(ph) Medical Clinic. How may I help you?

FESSLER: Williams has run a medical clinic in this community for 30 years with her husband, Joe Williams, who's also a physician. The Williamses remember all too well the civil rights battles of the 1960s, so they always ask their patients, who are often poor and black, if they're registered to vote.

AMANDA WOLF: The patients I've called, and letting them know bring their medications and all that.

FESSLER: Among the clinic's workers is 26-year-old Amanda Wolf, who until recently was homeless. She says she's trying to pull her life together. Wolf spent six months in the Sumter-Lee Regional Detention Center for failure to make child support payments. She says a bright spot was getting registered to vote.

WOLF: It's a privilege, you know, to be able to have the entire pod clap for you as you go up and get your voter's registration card. You know, it's a little bit of excitement when you feel like, you know, all hope is lost.

WILLIAMS: Next.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Michael Browder .

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News.

WILLIAMS: Mr. Browder, congratulations. You're now a voting citizen in the United States of America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.