Kareemah Hanifa is an Atlanta-based community organizer and activist who helps people with felony convictions restore their voting rights. She leads the Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s No Taxation Without Representation campaign, fighting state laws that bar many Georgians with criminal records from casting ballots.
But Hanifa was advocating for people behind bars decades before she got the job at IMAN in 2020.
“I was incarcerated, and I was organizing on the inside,” said Hanifa, who served 26 years in prison after being sentenced to life as a juvenile. “My organizing started there, and I always had a good relationship with the administration, the wardens, the deputy wardens, the captains. If people got sick, I would go to the people and speak up for them. So I’ve always advocated for people who didn’t have a voice or didn’t have access.”
Though she was released in 2019, she will be on parole for the rest of her life. That means she’ll never have the right to vote in Georgia — unless state law changes. She’s not only fighting to restore the rights of formerly incarcerated people like herself, she’s also battling misconceptions about their desire to engage in the voting process.
“I think a large misconception is that people that are incarcerated and people who have been incarcerated aren’t interested in voting, [that] they don’t care about who is in office, and that’s not true,” Hanifa said.
Capital B Atlanta interviewed Hanifa to learn more about her fight against felony disenfranchisement in Georgia, the connection between rights restoration and rehabilitation for formerly incarcerated people, and more.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Capital B: Why do you say, “No taxation without representation?”
Kareemah Hanifa: As someone who lives in this society, I’m required to pay taxes. My husband and I are trying to purchase a home. If we do, we’ll have to pay property taxes. I have to pay taxes on my vehicle. I have to pay taxes every time I go to a gas station to buy a pack of chewing gum. Right? Those taxes pay our civic leader’s salary, but I don’t get to decide who gets my money. And not just that, but they don’t represent me. I’m not their constituent. I didn’t vote them in, so they don’t owe me anything.
What is the legislation that you all are going to be introducing in the next session?
We are working on a bill to remove the language of moral turpitude from existing legislation, which defines who isn’t eligible to vote. Every state has a different definition for moral turpitude. In the state of Georgia, it means a crime that has a victim.
Well, every crime has a victim. What that looks like is every crime except for white-collar crimes. So I’ve been working with a coalition [that includes] the Advancement Project, SPLC, Women on the Rise and Deep South People’s Agenda.
We don’t just want to remove the language of moral turpitude, but change the language so that people never lose the right to vote, and that people are not disenfranchised for their entire lives because of a conviction.
It doesn’t matter if you are in the state of Georgia for a term of probation and parole — as long as you are under supervision, you’re not even allowed to register to vote.
How does the new bill you’re working on differ from previous ones?
I think we are just being more direct about what we want. We don’t want any carve-outs that will separate people by crimes.
The previous bill was submitted by [Democratic state] Sen. Josh McLaurin; he was in the House when he submitted it, but he’s in the Senate now. The bill was to amend a section code and remove the language of moral turpitude.
The new bill we are hoping to get introduced in January will include voting rights restoration and allow for people with felony convictions to run for public office.
Why do you think this has been such an uphill battle?
Georgia is not interested in restoring voting rights. They don’t want Black people to vote, let alone people who have been incarcerated.
How is rights restoration connected to rehabilitation?
I think rehabilitation is within the person. The system doesn’t offer any rehabilitation. If the people who created the system really believed that the system worked, then once you are released, why are you still punished?
If they really believe that being sentenced to a term of confinement annuls your sins or is your punishment for crime, then why are people still being penalized upon release?
Why are people blocked from housing? Why are people blocked from education? Why are people blocked from certain employment opportunities?
Why is this work so important?
We are doing this work because we believe in equity across the board as an organization. And we’re also doing this work because statistics have shown that people perform better in community when they believe that they are included in community.
That looks like believing that you have a say in the system that you live in.
Not paying your taxes is not an option. So it’s like even when you are doing everything you’re supposed to be doing to transition smoothly back into community, you’re still reminded, “We’ll take your money, but you’re not welcomed here.”
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