Flint, MI– For the first time ever, the Genesee County Jail is hosting a town hall ahead of the upcoming election to allow incarcerated people to learn about their candidates before they vote.

Sheriff Chris Swanson said that of the 622 people in jail, only 17 have been sentenced. That means the other 605, roughly 97% of the jail population, are awaiting trial and have the right to vote.

But without access to information, incarcerated voters are at a disadvantage when it comes to participating in the election process.

“When we hit these polls, the one thing every person asks us is, ‘What is going on out there? What are the people who serve us doing for us?’” said Genesee County Ambassador Johnell Allen-Bey during a press conference at the jail on Oct. 13. 

According to a report on voting access in Michigan jails by Nation Outside and Voting Access For All, only seven of the 67 counties in the report have “policies or procedures that have the potential to overcome most of the major barriers to voting in jail.” 

The report outlined the major barriers to voting as a lack of information, lack of access to necessary materials, lack of accessibility, mail restrictions and delays, lack of election day voting opportunities, and a lack of assistance. 

“If you have a right and you know that you have the right, but you don’t have the means or the ability to access that right, then how good is that right? That is what is so important about what this group of people is bringing to you,” said Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Tammy Phillips at the press conference. 

Genesee County was one of the seven counties listed in the report as having the potential to overcome those barriers, along with Houghton, Ingham, Kalamazoo, Saginaw, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties. 

Still, when researchers interviewed voters in the Genesee County Jail, the biggest issue they said kept them from voting was a lack of information.

“Because jails heavily restrict the flow of information and communications between incarcerated individuals and people on the outside, jailed voters often cannot freely access voter education resources without assistance from the jail, friends, family, or a volunteer group,” the report states. 

Only 26 of the counties in the report said that they provide incarcerated voters with “some kind of voter education resource,” whether it be actual helpful candidate information, or “cursory information in a jail handbook or poster.” Forty-one of the counties said they did not provide anything. 

For past elections, the Genesee County Jail has provided incarcerated people with sample ballots, some voting literature, and allowed them access to cable television to watch the news. This year, they’re stepping it up with a question and answer session with 41 candidates from around the county that will be held at the jail on Oct. 29. 

“All candidates, not just the city of Flint, not just the out-county, everybody that’s on the November ballot gets to stand before the people, and to share their vision of what they want to do,” said Sheriff Chris Swanson. 

Swanson said teaching people in jail about voting is also part of their educational I.G.N.I.T.E. program.

“What does education limit us to? Nothing. Teaching people their responsibility and their right to vote is just one of many in our algorithm of success,” Swanson said.

Amy Diaz is a journalist hailing from St. Petersburg, FL. She has written for multiple local newspapers in her hometown before becoming a full-time reporter for Flint Beat. When she’s not writing you...