In the last few weeks before the Presidential election, "get out the vote" drives are in full gear nationwide. In L.A. County, there's even an effort to go behind bars to register jail inmates to vote.
On a recent Wednesday, Lt. Edward Ramirez joined a group of volunteers and L.A. County Sheriff's deputies heading into Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles to register inmates in a pod on the second floor of the eastern tower.
Twin Towers is across the street from another famous L.A. lockup: the Men's Central Jail. The skyscrapers sit just northeast of LA’s classic skyline and have the look of a late century office complex. But their thin slats of window distinguish the buildings as what they are— home to L.A.’s maximum security inmates and those inmates needing psychiatric care.
Ramirez points out that Twin Towers have a podular, panoptic design that make the facility a geometric puzzle for those who don't work there every day.
Three sets of pods feed into a common day room, which sits in front of the observation booth's windows.
"You have officers in the booth who are able to see all the way around," Ramirez says. But as much as Twins Towers is a fortress, he says, it’s a porous one.
"The bottom line is the majority of our inmates and the majority of prisoners in the state of California will be getting out at some time," Ramirez says.
People pass in and out of L.A.’s county jails every day. The average stay is about two years. Before the state prison system began sending non-violent prison inmates back to Caliornia's 58 counties under realignment, the average stay was 30 to 40 days.
Everybody locked up in the Twin Towers jail is a part of Los Angeles, Ramirez says. And the more they realize that fact, the better.
“They need to be involved in the social activities that most people who aren’t incarcerated are involved with," he says. "And that includes casting a ballot and having your voice heard.”
For the past few years Ramirez and other members of the Community Transition Unit have been going to every jail in L.A. County, registering those eligible to vote. Unlike in many states, a felony conviction in California doesn’t disqualify a person from voting, except while they’re serving their prison time.
Those serving jail time for a misdemeanor or who are on trial or awaiting trial can cast a ballot.
This year for the first time, the Sheriff’s Department recruited volunteers to help register inmate voters and get them ballots.
Volunteer Fanya Baruti helped inmates who trickled in from the glassed-in cell blocks to fill out their paperwork.
"I’m one of those guys who didn’t vote until I was 50 years old," Baruti says.
He says it’s important for these inmates to vote because there are many issues on the ballot that affect them, from a proposition that would change three strikes, to school funding, to who’ll be the next district attorney.
“People have shed blood and died for just being able to vote," Baruti says. "And so when we look at it historically, I think that should be empowerment enough to dispel the apathy that people have.”
The biggest surprise in registering voters behind bars?
“A lot of Republicans,” Baruti says.
The two-week registration drive garnered 1,269 new voters. Those who’re in jail for the election will fill out their ballots absentee.