Newly released from prison, man votes for the first time on his 50th birthday in Portsmouth

Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Primary election day in Virginia was a special day for Ronald Whitehead, who is also known as Ronald Watson, of Portsmouth.

First of all, he turned the big 5-0 and for the first time, he exercised his right to vote. This small step on primary election day was a giant leap for Whitehead. A little more than a year ago, he was behind bars on felony drug charges.

Shortly after the polls opened, Whitehead, with his new bride at his side, was a little nervous as he entered Lakeview Elementary School in the historically Black Cavalier Manor section of Portsmouth. Precinct Chief Officer Kim Artis was on hand to walk him through the process.

She directed his attention to several fliers on a bulletin board.

“What I have here is your voting rights and responsibilities,” she explained, referring to the bulletin board.

She walked him to a nearby table that displays a sample ballot.

“This is how you vote as far as shading in the oval,” explained Artis.

Whitehead nodded his head in the affirmative and headed to the check-in table. Volunteers checked his identification and he was handed a ballot for the 2021 Democratic primary in Portsmouth.

His road to the polls was long and dangerous.

Whitehead grew up in the now-demolished drug and prostitution-ridden Jeffry Wilson housing community. At the age of 17, he was introduced to heroin, a drug he remained addicted to for decades. The addiction landed him in and out of incarceration.

But everything changed in 2017 while he was locked up in the Portsmouth jail. He met a food service employee, Summer Hawkins-Punter, fell in love with her and gave his life to Christ. He then served three years at the St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake.

“When I found God a lot of things changed for me: lifestyle changed, my attitude changed, my compassion for people changed. So it can be done; I’m a living witness,” said Whitehead.

Because of the pandemic, Whitehead, a non-violent offender, was given early release in May 2020. He got married, opened a pressure washing business, and now works part-time with his father as a brick mason.

He also partnered with MAN Foundation, a nonprofit organization that assists felons and their families.

Out of curiosity after Whitehead was released, his new wife Summer logged onto a state database to determine whether her husband’s voting rights had been restored. The answer was yes. She proudly carries a copy of the March 24, 2021 document in her cell phone photo archives. It is signed by Gov. Ralph Northam and by executive order it restores her husband’s right to vote, serve as a notary, serve on a jury and run for public office.

Whitehead and his wife celebrated his birthday and the arrival of a newly-minted voter in Portsmouth.

Whitehead says he will return to prison — not as an inmate — but to deliver a message to those who are still behind bars.

“I encourage all the Black young men such as myself and other ones who have been incarcerated, they have to persevere, keep their faith in God and he will bring you through it. You may be in the situation or the point where I am now to where you can vote and be a productive member of society,” said Whitehead.

Whitehead is not ruling out a run for public office and says he would like to meet the governor and personally thank him.

Northam has restored the rights of more than 111,000 Virginians since his term began.

Northam’s office emailed a prepared statement to 10 On Your Side: “We are a Commonwealth that believes in moving forward, not being tied down by the mistakes of our past. If we want people to return to our communities and participate in society, we must welcome them back fully. I’m so proud to have restored the rights of over 110,000 individuals, and I encourage all Virginians to exercise their fundamental right to vote.” 

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