FGCU Journalism Students Profile Former Felons About to Vote Again
As part of a partnership between WGCU and the FGCU journalism program, we are featuring the following stories created by senior students for their Capstone project.
A federal trial began April 27 in Tallahassee concerning the restoration of voting rights for most non-violent former felons in Florida. Voters in the state overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to overhaul Florida’s backlogged clemency process and automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. Then in 2019, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bill requiring all fines, fees and restitution associated with a felony sentencing be repaid before felons could regain their voting rights. A U.S. District judge in Tallahassee will consider the constitutional merits of that legislation in a consolidated class action suit challenging the law.
Clifford Tyson is one of the 17 plaintiffs in the lawsuit.Written by Leah Sankey, with research and interview assistance from Jordyn Matez and Andy Quach
Currently a pastor at Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg, Tyson was convicted of armed robbery and faced other theft charges in the 1970s and 1990s. Tyson described the surge of emotions he felt when he voted in the recent presidential primary. “I didn’t think I’d become overwhelmed like I did,” Tyson said.
He took his 5-year-old grandson and his wife to the polls with him to cast his ballot in the March presidential preference primary. At 64-years-old, it was Tyson’s first time voting in 42 years. “When I got my ballot in my hand, I began to cry,” Tyson said. “And I hear my wife say, ‘He hasn’t voted in 42 years.’ So, the people just started clapping and when they did that, I think more tears rolled out.”
Tyson was a senior in college when he was arrested on charges of robbery and sent to Florida State Prison in Tallahassee. He was majoring in Political Science and wanted to be a lawyer.
In fact, because he understood the law and spoke up about injustices he witnessed, Tyson said the prison guards referred to him as a “chain gang lawyer. According to Tyson, it was because of his status as a “chain gang lawyer” that he was moved to a single cell, away from the rest of the prison population, for exactly 1,341 days.
There was another notorious inmate also deemed a “chain gang lawyer” in the one-man cell directly beside Tyson’s.
“Ted Bundy. You ever heard of him?” Tyson said.
Tyson credited his passion for fighting for civil rights to his parents, who fought in the Civil Rights Movement. He added that those opposed to the movement were afraid of change, which is how he views many in the Florida legislature now.
“If I have to go through this and share everything and no one wants to hire me again, it doesn’t matter,” said Tyson. “I want to be able to fight for the rights of the people who are returning as citizens who will have the opportunity to vote and make a difference in our society.”
Tyson never became an attorney, but he said that even though he isn’t the lawyer he once thought he’d become, he feels that by serving as a plaintiff in the U.S. District Court challenge, he’s doing what he’s supposed to, which is helping fellow returning citizens get their voices back.
His Own Party Doesn’t Want Him to Vote, and He’sTrying to Change That Written by Leah Sankey, with research and interview assistance from Jordyn Matez and Andy Quach
Lance Wissinger lives in Fort Myers, where he owns a small business. He’s the co-chairman at the Lee County Republican Liberty Caucus and a policy fellow at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC). He is an advocate for returning citizens and criminal justice reform.Wissinger is 40, and will vote for the first time in the 2020 presidential election. He didn’t vote in the recent primary because he’s registered as an Independent, even though he leans toward the Republican party.He said he realizes that the opposition to felon voting rights is predominantly within his own party. It’s because of this that he often speaks at Republican clubs, sharing his story. Wissinger said that above all, he believes in putting people over politics. “If you are fighting against this, I can’t vote for you,” he said. “There are countless people that are in the same boat as me that are Republicans.”
In early 2003, Wissinger was living in Colorado. He signed up for the United States Air Force Entry Program, specifically for the Special Forces. He said he wanted to save people. The program didn’t start for a few months, and he knew his father didn’t have much time left. So, he came to Southwest Florida to spend time with his parents.
It was during his brief time in Florida that he made what he described as the biggest mistake of his life. In September 2003, Wissinger went to a baseball game with friends and had been drinking. Later that evening, Wissinger was driving. His friend was in the passenger seat, and Wissinger lost control of the car. They were both ejected from the vehicle on Pine Island Rd. His friend died. Wissinger was charged with DUI manslaughter.
“I lost my friend, I lost my career, my dad had passed away, I felt like I had lost my entire life,” Wissinger said.
He served four and a half years in prison, followed by five years of probation.Wissinger spent most of his sentence working on and implementing programs that aim to help inmates reintegrate into society and learn new skills. Now that he’s free, he volunteers in Florida’s prisons to expand those programs.
“For the most part, [Florida’s prison system] is just warehousing people and cutting programs,” Wissinger said.Wissinger said that the lack of programs offered to inmates is behind Florida’s high recidivism rate. According to astudy released by the Florida Department of Corrections that measured recidivism rates from 2010 to 2016, within three years, about a quarter of inmates released from prison were back behind bars.
“A lot of people, especially in Republican organizations, have this stigma and stereotype of what it means to be a felon. So, when I speak at places, my biography states my work with FRRC, that I’m a small business owner, I volunteer, all these other things but nothing about being a felon,” Wissinger said. “And then at the end of the speech I say, ‘On top of all that stuff, I’m also a felon.’ And you can almost hear a hush come over the room.”
Wissinger said he changes people’s minds every time he tells his story and that he will continue to do so.
He added that he feels optimistic that Florida’s returning citizens will pave the way for widespread criminal justice reformin the state. Wissinger emphasized the need for prisons to focus on correcting the issues that lead people to prison in the first place. “It’s called the Department of Corrections, but I don’t see many corrections,” Wissinger said.
A Former Felon from Virginia Discusses Fully Returning as a Citizen
By Victoria Alvarez
In 1992, then 32-year-old Thomas Bass stole a couple of baseball cards. He didn’t realize what they were worth, but because they were priced at over $300, Bass pleaded guilty to felonygrand larceny in a Virginia courthouse and was sent to jail.
Once he served his time and completed his probation, he learned that because hewas a convicted felon, he had lost certain rights - among them being the right to vote. At the time, he says voting was the least of his worries- he was just content to have survived a very intense jail experience.
“I was thinking like, ‘Well, you know, voting rights - no big deal. Gun rights - no big deal.’ But as time went on, I’m like, ‘Wow, I don’t have any say in anything,’” Bass said.
As the years passed, voting cycles came and went. Bass didn’t have a say in who was elected to represent him, andhe couldn’t vote on issues like abortion, immigration, and drug legislation. He felt less a part of the county he cared for.
The gravity of his disenfranchisementweighed on him. He didn’t feel like a citizen anymore.
“I didn’t realize how important the voting rights are,” Bass said. “I’ve often said over the years that I would have taken more jail time rather than lose my voting rights.”
Bass started a new life by sobering up from his opioid addiction. He left Virginia and moved to Florida where he raised his daughter.
Virginia restored felon voting rights in the spring of 2016. Bass refers to the moment he found out he could vote again as ‘Christmas in October.’ He found a letter sent from Virginia in his mailbox which stated his right to vote had been restored.
“I was tickled pink,” Bass said.
The good news came toformer felons in Virginia, but felons in Florida still couldn’t vote until two years later. The Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, also known as Amendment Four, was approved in November 2018. Former felons living in Florida will be able to vote during the presidential election in 2020.
Neil Volz, from the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, helped negotiate and secure passage for the Help America Vote Act. His efforts have helped people like Bass get their voting rights restored.
Volz’s 25 years of experience has led him to interact with many people just like Bass. What has stuck with Volz throughout his career is that his advocacy is less about restoring someone’s right to them, but more about believing in second chances.
“It’s really an issue of identity and who we are and how we see ourselves,” Volz said. “So when you get your voice back, you’re also getting the ability to participate in the community back.”
According to the state’s American Civil Liberties Union, the passage of Amendment Four restores 1.4 million former felons the right to vote.