MEET THE VISIONARY
"Somebody Say Restore"
FOUNDER/PASTOR KENNETH GLASGOW
In 2001, Kenny Glasgow began asking an important question: How do we change society to make it fair for ordinary people? His organization, The Ordinary People Society, (T.O.P.S.), funded by Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI) since 2003, exists to do just that. Recognizing the disparities in arrest, bail, and incarceration, Kenny and T.O.P.S. set out to learn how to increase equity for the ordinary people caught up in the criminal justice and legal system. They studied past movements, including civil and voting rights organizing, and they soon saw a connection. “Part of the rejection of people who are convicted of crimes,” Kenny explains, “is dehumanizing them. And part of that dehumanization is taking away their voting rights, which are the rights that define citizenship. People are stripped of their citizenship when they’re not allowed to vote.”
That year, the Let My People Vote campaign was born. Kenny knew he wanted to start with language to call people who have been imprisoned “formerly incarcerated people,” rather than define them by the crime of. which they had been convicted. “Don’t call me an ex-offender or ex-convict, Call me a person.” Kenny, who has himself been incarcerated, demands.
Kicking off nearly two decades of activism, Kenny organized a campaign to help people with criminal records in Alabama regain their right to vote. At the time, there was a widely held misconception in the state that people convicted of felonies lost their voting rights unless and until they had served their sentences and successfully petitioned to have their rights restored. In fact, according to Alabama’s Constitution, only those who have been convicted of felonies “involving moral turpitude” are disqualified from voting. The T.O.P.S. campaign exposed that misconception – which even the Secretary of State’s website misstated. The T.O.P.S. campaign made it possible for countless people to vote and helped win passage of new legislation which simplified the restoration process for those who had actually lost their right to vote.
The legislation became law in 2003, the same year that CJI began funding T.O.P.S. program to go inside jails to register people to vote. Kenny and T.O.P.S. entered city jails in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, registering people who had been convicted of misdemeanors rather than felonies, as well as people who were awaiting trial and who therefore, despite being incarcerated, had not lost their right to vote. With help from county officials, they developed a mechanism for incarcerated people to vote using absentee ballots. According to the New York Times, in the two years after the 2003 statute took effect, more than 5,500 formerly incarcerated people in Alabama had their voting rights restored.
T.O.P.S. has since expanded their work to five states, adding Tennessee and Mississippi to Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
Counted among their “wins” is another successful case against the state of Alabama. In this case T.O.P.S. focused on restoring the voting rights of those who should never have lost them in the first place - individuals who were convicted of crimes that were not moral turpitude crimes. As a result of this lawsuit, in 2017, they advocated for and won passage of a bill that, at long last, clarified which crimes are considered crimes of moral turpitude. This result ensured that people not convicted of crimes of moral turpitude would no longer erroneously lose their right to vote.
T.O.P.S. has a similarly persistent and fruitful history in Florida. In 2007, the group successfully pushed for new Rules of Executive Clemency in Florida, which allowed for the restoration of voting rights for people convicted of non-violent felonies. In a single year this initiative resulted in more than 100,000 individuals being granted the right to vote. When Governor Rick Scott took office in 2011, he rolled back this policy. Not to be deterred, T.O.P.S. played a major role in the 2017 passage of Amendment 4, the game-changing Florida ballot initiative which automatically restored the right to vote to 1.4 million individuals with past felony convictions.
Most recently, TOPS registered and supported approximately 10,000 formerly and currently incarcerated people to vote in the last congressional election, a move which Pastor believes changed the election’s outcome. He reminds us that people registered in jail or prison, as well as formerly incarcerated people, do not show up on voter lists until the election after their first vote. As a result, they are essentially “surprise voters” when they vote for the first time. As Kenny puts it, “These are people that no one appeals to because they are considered non-voters or unlikely voters because they are disenfranchised and purged from the voting lists.” This is why the in-jail vote can be a surprise element in any election.
To take this strategy nationwide, T.O.P.S. collaborated with Project South to create a toolkit that can be used in jails and prisons across the country. “An organizer, preacher, layman, inmate - anyone can use our easy to follow toolkit and easily train others how to register these voters as well," Kenny shares. Because clergy have increased access to prisons and jails, T.O.P.S. and Project South train preachers to register people inside, to help them to vote by absentee ballot and then to make sure their ballots are counted. Because individuals are not always fully informed of their rights, T.O.P.S. and Project South promote awareness through
infomercials and ongoing community organizing.
CJI is proud to have been a supporter of T.O.P.S. helping them achieve their extraordinary success. CJI recognizes T.O.P.S. work will impact local, state, and national elections for years to come. In addition to their work in restoring people to their full citizenship, CJI funded T.O.P.S. in 2009 to begin the work of the Formerly Incarcerated People’s Movement, FICPM, now known as FICPFM. Currently, FICPFM is a growing network of over 50 civil and human rights organizations led by people with conviction histories and their family members. CJI is honored to have worked with Kenny, T.O.P.S. and FICPFM over the years.
In March 2019, CJI’s executive director, Aleah Bacquie-Vaughn, attended a weekend of activities sponsored by T.O.P.S. and their colleagues in Selma, Alabama. The weekend was to culminate with a commemorative walk over the Edmond Pettus Bridge; the historic site where civil rights protesters were attacked in 1965 on a day that became known as Bloody Sunday. The activism-packed weekend included discussions on the role of women in the movement to end mass incarceration, a mock trial against the mis-education of black and brown children, and a clergy breakfast. T.O.P.S. also worked with the Bloody Sunday Jubilee Committee to organize a die-in on the infamous bridge. “Normally,” Aleah says, “when people have commemoration marches, they retrace the steps of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Kenny came up with the idea to go the opposite way. The inspiration was that those of us marching would go back and claim all that had been left behind, including the rights of formerly incarcerated people and economic justice for all.”
At the event, Aleah met an organizer who had been a child on Bloody Sunday. “You can still see the scar on her head. People who encountered her were moved to tears. There were also many formerly incarcerated people who had been shackled there. Together we laid down on the wet ground for ten minutes to honor those who had lost their lives in the struggle for civil rights. Lying there, looking up at the sky, you could see the darkness and clouds of an oncoming tornado. Silently we felt a powerful wave of energy pass through the crowd. Many wept openly. This was another demonstration of the importance and impact of T.O.P.S. historic efforts and their deep connection to the Selma and Montgomery civil rights legacy,” Aleah concluded.
Not unlike his predecessors in the Civil Rights Movement, Pastor Glasgow has recently been charged with a serious felony. “I believe he was charged,” Aleah says, “because of his activism on voter registration and to disrupt the fundraising he’s been able to do for this work. They charged Kenny and put him in jail. There were so many people who showed up at the courthouse to support him, that they released him on bail.”
Kenny vehemently maintains he is innocent of the crime and finds the outpouring of support heartening. He names wide-ranging defenders, including philanthropist Agnes Gund who, he says, approved a large grant to FICPFM, the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted Peoples and Families Movement. In part Agnes's motivation for funding FICPFM comes from the understanding of cases like Kenny’s where activists are targeted with false criminal charges. Kenny has no intention of being brought down.
“Most of the Southern succession states have the moral turpitude language,” he says. “They make it hard to get jobs and housing in addition to not having access to vote. We are considering fighting these moral turpitude clauses and all of their implications.” There is also the issue of fees assessed on people who are being released from prison having completed their sentences. “It’s the modern day poll tax,” Kenny explains. “Until all of the fees have been paid, you still do not get your right to vote. T.O.P.S. is working to pass legislation that will change that too.”
In summary, the “Let My People Vote” campaign works with:
Incarcerated people who are charged with, but not convicted of, crimes, helping them to register and vote by absentee ballot.
Incarcerated people who were convicted of misdemeanors, helping them to register and vote by absentee ballot.
People with felony convictions who are no longer incarcerated, helping them to restore their rights, and register to vote.
People with restored rights, helping them to train others.
Clergy, community members, and other organizations, engaging them in the fight and growing the movement.
Credits go to Circle for Justice Innovations. https://www.cjifund.org/post/let-my-people-vote