Nicole Porter of The Sentencing Project
The Sentencing Project’s Nicole Porter speaks at a press conference in support of legislation to restore voting rights to imprisoned people in Washington, DC. (Photo courtesy of The Sentencing Project)

Wel­come to the fifth install­ment of NPI at Net­roots Nation 2022, a spe­cial lim­it­ed pod­cast series record­ed live from the David L. Lawrence Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Pitts­burgh. NPI staff jour­neyed to Steel City this past week to par­tic­i­pate in the nation’s largest annu­al gath­er­ing of pro­gres­sive activists.

As part of our con­fer­ence cov­er­age, we’re bring­ing you a series of con­ver­sa­tions with key move­ment lead­ers and elect­ed officials.

In this install­ment of NPI@NN, we’re hon­ored to be joined by Nicole Porter, Senior Direc­tor of Advo­ca­cy at The Sen­tenc­ing Project. Press play below to lis­ten to the audio, or read the tran­script below.


Read the transcript

(Note: this tran­script has been edit­ed light­ly for clarity) 

CAYA: Wel­come to NPI at Net­roots 2022, a spe­cial lim­it­ed pod­cast series from the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute record­ed live from the David L. Lawrence Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia! I’m your host Caya Berndt. We’re super glad to have you with us. For this install­ment, we are excit­ed to be joined by Nicole Porter, the Senior Direc­tor of Advo­ca­cy for The Sen­tenc­ing Project. 

Wel­come, Nicole! 

NICOLE: Thank you so much for hav­ing me, Caya. Appre­ci­ate being here.

CAYA: We real­ly appre­ci­ate you being here too! [Why don’t you start by telling us] about who you are and what your orga­ni­za­tion is? What do you do? 

NICOLE: Sure. Well, The Sen­tenc­ing Project is a research and advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion based in DC.. We’ve been around since the mid-eight­ies. We do research relat­ed to incar­cer­a­tion, and are work­ing on a more humane response to crime and crime pre­ven­tion through a racial jus­tice and gen­der jus­tice lens.

I am the Senior Direc­tor of Advo­ca­cy. I’ve been with the orga­ni­za­tion for over a decade, and my port­fo­lio is based most­ly on state issues and state advo­ca­cy. I work with our staff and col­leagues and sis­ter orga­ni­za­tions to chal­lenge mass incar­cer­a­tion and expand vot­ing rights to peo­ple regard­less of their crim­i­nal or legal back­ground I most recent­ly pub­lished a report on prison clo­sures and prison repur­pos­ing, which I’m very excit­ed about.

CAYA: Yeah. I’d like to know a lit­tle bit more about that report. Can you tell us about what’s in it? 

NICOLE: Sure. The key find­ing of the report is that since 2000, at least twen­ty-one states ful­ly closed or par­tial­ly closed at least one cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ty, and tak­ing over 81,000 prison beds offline. The report also high­lights exam­ples of prison reuse in states like New York, Michi­gan, and Tennessee. 

In Ten­nessee, a closed prison has been repur­posed to a whiskey dis­tillery and event space. In New York, a closed prison has been repur­posed to a movie stu­dio. And I’m very excit­ed about a cur­rent project that the report high­lights in Texas, my home state, where a closed a prison, which sits on a nature con­ser­van­cy, is being repur­posed for com­mu­ni­ty space. So the pur­pose of the report was to doc­u­ment what can hap­pen when a prison is closed. And there have been open­ings for prison clo­sures dat­ing back to 2000, as the report high­lights for many rea­sons. States over the last twen­ty, thir­ty years have gone through fis­cal crises, reces­sions, and that has cre­at­ed pres­sure to reduce state bud­gets. And one key way to reduce state bud­gets is to reduce its cor­rec­tion system.

So, cer­tain­ly in the 2010–2011 reces­sion, that cre­at­ed pres­sure for states like New York and states like Texas to close pris­ons. And once pris­ons are closed, plan­ning for their reuse is impor­tant because if not, they can be reopened for addi­tion­al cor­rec­tion­al pur­pos­es. There’s been exam­ples of closed adult pris­ons in the state crim­i­nal legal sys­tem being repur­posed for immi­grant detention. 

There’s been exam­ples of closed youth pris­ons being trans­ferred to the adult crim­i­nal legal sys­tem. So it’s very impor­tant for offi­cials to not just end stake­hold­ers’ decarcer­a­tion advo­cates, to not just focus on the clo­sure itself, but to actu­al­ly plan for what can hap­pen with the cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ty once it’s closed, to be repur­posed for a new use. 

CAYA: That’s real­ly inter­est­ing. I would’ve nev­er have thought about that. It’s almost like once that vacant space and its pur­pose is there, it still remains open for con­tin­ued exploita­tion. So it’s almost like… shut­ting it down before that can happen.

NICOLE: Absolute­ly. And in fact, some pris­ons, when they’re closed, they do what’s called a “soft clo­sure,” or “warm clo­sure.” In fact, in Wash­ing­ton State, there are exam­ples of this now – I’m sor­ry, not Wash­ing­ton State, Ore­gon – there are exam­ples of this, because there’s been one or two pris­ons in the last year or so that were announced for a warm clo­sure, which means the prison isn’t ful­ly shut down. There are still staff paid to make sure the water runs, to secure the facil­i­ty, and the announce­ment of the warm clo­sure, the pre­text for that from the gov­er­nor and from the state offi­cials, was that in case the prison pop­u­la­tion increas­es again, we wan­na make sure that the prison is ready to dis­ap­pear new res­i­dents to it for fur­ther incar­cer­a­tion pur­pos­es.

So the real­i­ty is this: the Unit­ed States still has the high­est incar­cer­a­tion rate in the world. Even though there’s been a mod­est decline, since the prison pop­u­la­tion peaked in 2009, even with that mod­est decline, there’s still way too high of a prison pop­u­la­tion. And because we have such a high prison pop­u­la­tion, the Unit­ed States over­built its prison sys­tem in the sev­en­ties, eight­ies, and nineties as a response to the increase in crime, and as a response to the increase in the prison pop­u­la­tion that start­ed in the ear­ly seventies.

Now, oth­er coun­tries also had an increase in crime at the same time that the Unit­ed States did in the ear­ly sev­en­ties, but they did not choose to respond with puni­tive­ness that then led to an increase in prison admis­sions and length­en­ing terms of stays in state and fed­er­al prison sys­tems, which then led to an increase in the num­ber of prison beds in prison facil­i­ties around the country.

So what the Unit­ed States need­ed to do now, even in the midst of shift­ing crime trends, rather than rely on the sta­tus quo that dis­ap­pears its most mar­gin­al­ized and dis­en­fran­chised res­i­dents to prison, the Unit­ed States should be pri­or­i­tiz­ing pre­ven­tion-based pub­lic safe­ty solu­tions, com­mu­ni­ty based pub­lic safe­ty solu­tions that under­stands that every­body in this coun­try, regard­less of what zip code they were born into, or what com­mu­ni­ty they were born into, has a future and deserves a future. And so the Unit­ed States should be work­ing now to cor­rect for the harms of the last fifty years of the mass incar­cer­a­tion era, even in the midst of con­cerns about crime, to be focus­ing its resources on pre­ven­tion-based solu­tions, rather than the sta­tus quo prac­tice of dis­ap­pear­ing peo­ple to prison and sus­tain­ing the high incar­cer­a­tion rate that the coun­try has. 

CAYA: Absolute­ly. And again, I like what you men­tioned about this influx of build­ing pris­ons, because I think that there can be… peo­ple are more con­cerned about crime than there is actu­al crime, if that makes sense.

NICOLE: Yes. There is a mis­per­cep­tion of crime because of the way crime is cov­ered, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the local news. If you can imag­ine old­er peo­ple who are home­bound, who may not have access to oth­er forms of enter­tain­ment, just their local TV sta­tions, are inun­dat­ed with sto­ries of crime, and have a mis­per­cep­tion of the preva­lence of crime with­in the com­mu­ni­ty. Now, the real­i­ty is that there are some neigh­bor­hoods, even in the midst of a crime decline – because crime start­ed declin­ing in the ear­ly nineties – as a pro­gres­sive, I don’t wan­na min­i­mize or dis­miss the preva­lence of crime in some communities. 

The real­i­ty is that crime is too high in some com­mu­ni­ties, but the way in which the Unit­ed States has respond­ed to that, with the over­polic­ing, with the extrac­tion of res­i­dents for a range of offens­es, because we send peo­ple to prison for things in this coun­try that they just don’t get sent to prison for in oth­er parts of the world, the life­time col­lat­er­al con­se­quences that we sub­ject res­i­dents to…it’s a com­plete­ly out­ra­geous response to crime break­ing in a way that dehu­man­izes res­i­dents, and uses the crim­i­nal legal sys­tem as a pre­text for that dehumanization. 

Regard­less of some­one’s [law]breaking, there’s still a human and there’s still a cit­i­zen. And the prob­lem in this coun­try – this is because of a through line of the racial caste sys­tem – is that the way the crim­i­nal legal sys­tem cur­rent­ly oper­ates is to not just dehu­man­ize Amer­i­can cit­i­zens and Amer­i­can res­i­dents, par­tic­u­lar­ly for res­i­dents who may not have cit­i­zen­ship, but it also strips peo­ple, cit­i­zens, of cit­i­zen­ship, and then under­mines the abil­i­ty of res­i­dents to become cit­i­zens.

That is because of the way the crim­i­nal legal sys­tem has evolved in the con­text of this coun­try, giv­en the racial caste sys­tem, and giv­en the exten­sion of law enforce­ment as a way to medi­ate between the cit­i­zen, and the res­i­dent, and the state, and their rela­tion­ship as an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen with­in this country.

CAYA: Thank you, that was a fan­tas­tic answer. 

And the dis­en­fran­chise­ment and the strip­ping of cit­i­zen­hood, that’s what shows up in not extend­ing vot­ing rights to peo­ple with dif­fer­ent crim­i­nal con­vic­tions or dif­fer­ent felony con­vic­tions. To give a bit of my per­son­al expe­ri­ence, I have encoun­tered a lot of push­back when I’ve brought that up with peo­ple, even peo­ple who might oth­er­wise be well-mean­ing. They still might be resis­tant to the idea of let­ting peo­ple with felony con­vic­tions vote, because our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is mod­eled in such a way that com­mu­ni­cates that some actions make you no longer wor­thy of par­tic­i­pat­ing in our democracy.

And I feel like there are some peo­ple that still believe that. So what would be the best way to go about a con­ver­sa­tion with some­body who is resis­tant or hes­i­tant on the idea of giv­ing vot­ing rights back to felons? 

NICOLE: Well, the Sen­tenc­ing Project believes that once some­one gets their vot­ing rights, they should cer­tain­ly nev­er lose them. And the Unit­ed States is an out­lier amongst west­ern democ­ra­cies that denies vot­ing rights to peo­ple with crim­i­nal legal con­vic­tion his­to­ries. In some states, peo­ple lose their vot­ing rights for life. So they could have com­mit­ted a felony offense in their ear­ly twen­ties, which is com­mon in this coun­try, giv­en the over-polic­ing of neigh­bor­hoods, par­tic­u­lar­ly start­ing in the eight­ies dur­ing the start of the War on Drugs. 

You can imag­ine young men, young men of col­or, dri­ving through a neigh­bor­hood in Hous­ton, or Atlanta, or Birm­ing­ham, being stopped for a traf­fic infrac­tion, and the inter­ac­tion esca­lat­ing, as many peo­ple have wit­nessed over the last cou­ple of years with the exam­ples of George Floyd, and oth­er high-pro­file police inter­ac­tions that quick­ly esca­late, and that young man in Hous­ton, Atlanta, or Birm­ing­ham, get­ting a felony case. 

And the real­i­ty is that the increase of con­tact with law enforce­ment start­ed in the eight­ies, and has been a dri­ving force in mass incar­cer­a­tion, con­tribut­ing to the sky­rock­et­ing prison sys­tem, which then extends to a sky­rock­et­ing num­ber of peo­ple impact­ed by col­lat­er­al con­se­quences, includ­ing a loss of vot­ing rights.

In fact, as of 2020, the num­ber of peo­ple who could not vote because of a felony con­vic­tion in this coun­try was over five mil­lion. And the major­i­ty of those indi­vid­u­als were liv­ing in the com­mu­ni­ty. They were not in prison.

There were about two mil­lion in prison. So, more than three mil­lion, were liv­ing in the com­mu­ni­ty and dis­en­fran­chised from vot­ing. Those indi­vid­u­als live in states like Vir­ginia and Ken­tucky, and are dis­en­fran­chised for life unless they get a par­don from the gov­er­nor, or receive some oth­er rem­e­dy. But in Vir­ginia, over 300,000 peo­ple are dis­en­fran­chised from vot­ing. In Ken­tucky, over a hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple were dis­en­fran­chised from vot­ing. The state that had the most, that has the largest dis­en­fran­chised pop­u­la­tion, is Florida.

Now, Flori­da had a major reform in 2018 by expand­ing vot­ing rights to peo­ple once they com­plet­ed their sen­tence (most peo­ple), and about a mil­lion peo­ple got their vot­ing rights back. Sig­nif­i­cant reform. 

But it still has a too large vot­ing ban, because peo­ple cur­rent­ly serv­ing their sen­tence on pro­ba­tion or parole in that state can’t vote. But the reform that got adopt­ed a few years ago, by over 60% sup­port of Flori­da vot­ers, Amend­ment Four, was sig­nif­i­cant and huge, and real­ly helped to build momen­tum for the need to expand vot­ing rights, and end these vot­ing rights bans. 

So the real­i­ty is that when some­body is arrest­ed and con­vict­ed, for break­ing a law, for crime break­ing, they lose liberty. 

They’re sub­ject­ed to a term of impris­on­ment, a jail term. They may be sub­ject­ed to a peri­od of com­mu­ni­ty super­vi­sion, probation. 

That is the sen­tence. Peo­ple’s move­ment is restrict­ed. If they’re sen­tenced to prison or jail, they have some­body that has to tell them when to wake up. Some­body puts them in their cell, forces them into their cell, and lim­its when they can move about. They can’t go, they can’t trav­el, even if they’re under com­mu­ni­ty super­vi­sion, they have to get per­mis­sion from their pro­ba­tion or parole offi­cer to trav­el out of their home juris­dic­tion – cer­tain­ly out of state. 

I work with for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed activists who are still on parole super­vi­sion. I orga­nized a meet­ing of peo­ple in Den­ver a few weeks ago. Sev­er­al of the folks had to get per­mis­sion from their parole offi­cers in order to come. 

And these are grown peo­ple, some of them elder­ly, who had to get per­mis­sion, like they’re teenagers, and they have to ask their par­ent for per­mis­sion to go some­where. That is a penal­ty! So the idea that we would attach addi­tion­al penal­ties onto that, among the most extreme being the loss of vot­ing rights, oth­er penal­ties include legal dis­crim­i­na­tion, lit­er­al­ly, for employ­ment because of some­one’s crim­i­nal back­ground his­to­ry, legal hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in pub­lic and pri­vate hous­ing, because of some­one’s crim­i­nal background.

That is why it’s the peo­ple who are resis­tant to the idea of vot­ing rights. Why should we care about vot­ing rights? Peo­ple should care because, rest assured, that the mil­lions of peo­ple who are in prison, in jail today, and the addi­tion­al mil­lions who are liv­ing in the com­mu­ni­ty under pro­ba­tion or parole super­vi­sion, they are being pun­ished. Peo­ple in this coun­try do not have to wor­ry about pun­ish­ment, giv­en the extreme sever­i­ty of pun­ish­ment that many peo­ple are sub­ject­ed to. We have over 200,000 peo­ple in this coun­try sen­tenced to life impris­on­ment. We still sen­tence peo­ple to death. 

There’s still been exe­cu­tions this year, in this country.

Peo­ple should not dis­miss or min­i­mize the lev­el of extreme sever­i­ty that the Amer­i­can legal sys­tem sub­jects its cit­i­zens and its res­i­dents to. An exten­sion of that are vot­ing bans and felony dis­en­fran­chise­ment. Peo­ple should be con­cerned by that, because the way in which the sys­tem now func­tions is that the gov­ern­ment, the crim­i­nal legal sys­tem, can medi­ate between the cit­i­zen and the elec­torate. And if some­body is under crim­i­nal legal super­vi­sion, or has con­tact with the crim­i­nal legal sys­tem in some states like Vir­ginia or Ken­tucky, for life. So that’s why peo­ple should be con­cerned. And that was a very long answer!

CAYA: It was fan­tas­tic. And I think it real­ly got to the heart of the con­ver­sa­tion, and that is the fun­da­men­tal lib­er­ty that every­body is enti­tled to.

NICOLE: Yeah, peo­ple dis­miss the lib­er­ty part. The fact that peo­ple actu­al­ly lose it when they’re con­vict­ed of a crime. And it’s not to say that peo­ple should­n’t be held account­able, but peo­ple are being sen­tenced to decades-long prison terms, and they’re being sub­ject­ed to life­time-long col­lat­er­al con­se­quences. And the loss of lib­er­ty is a sig­nif­i­cant expe­ri­ence that peo­ple are sub­ject­ed to. So peo­ple should not min­i­mize that. 

CAYA: We’re run­ning close to time here, [so] before we go, I have just have one more ques­tion for you: for those lis­ten­ers who are want­i­ng to learn more about the his­to­ry of incar­cer­a­tion or some of these top­ics that you’ve brought up, are there any books, any pod­casts, any­thing that you would rec­om­mend for some­body who is want­i­ng to learn more about this subject? 

NICOLE: Well, they can vis­it us online at We do have a primer on felony dis­en­fran­chise­ment, which is a good explain­er, a good back­ground doc­u­ment. Also stay in touch with us, vis­it us online, sign up for our email list, because we’ll be hav­ing an upcom­ing nation­al report that updates the esti­mates on peo­ple impact­ed by a felony dis­en­fran­chise­ment in the next cou­ple of months, so stay tuned for that. And books! There’s so many. 

What I’m read­ing right now, I’m read­ing The 1619 Project, which is the book that updates the work that Nikole Han­nah-Jones was doing with the New York Times a cou­ple years ago. It’s fan­tas­tic, as of course the series was, or the spe­cial insert was. It real­ly pro­vides a great overview of not just jus­tice issues, but a range of oth­er issues, includ­ing, traf­fic and health­care, in how anti-Black racism influ­ences pol­i­cy in the Unit­ed States. So I would rec­om­mend lis­ten­ers read that. 

CAYA: Alright, thank you very much. 

That was Nicole Porter with the Sen­tenc­ing Project, and that was this install­ment of NPI at Net­roots Nation 2022! Please feel free to join us for the next install­ment. For NPI, I’m Caya Berndt.

Read­ers can view an online ver­sion of the report men­tioned in this episode  (Repur­pos­ing Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­i­ties to Strength­en Com­mu­ni­ties) at this link.

About the author

Caya is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor based out of Spokane, Washington, writing about Lilac City politics, the Evergreen State's 5th Congressional District, and related politics. She previously hosted the inaugural episodes of NPI's PNWcurrents podcast. She works at the Unemployment Law Project and is a graduate of Central Washington University, with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and sciences. Caya also has a minor from CWU in law and justice.

Adjacent posts