From prison to the voting booth: Voting rights restored for thousands in Virginia

Virginia Politics

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — It was more than three decades ago when 18-year-old Ronald Watson lived in what he calls the “city that never sleeps.”

The Jeffrey Wilson public housing community was the Hampton Roads hub for heroin, prostitution, shot-houses, and associated violence 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.

“I remember finding people who had overdosed, people who had been shot, and several dead bodies,” said Watson.

(Photo courtesy: Ronald Whitehead)

Once in high school, Watson says he started experimenting with heroin. In a matter of days, he was hooked.

The addiction haunted him for decades.

In 2017, while in custody at the Portsmouth jail, Watson befriended Summer Hawkins-Punter who worked in the foodservice department. He also befriended another prisoner, who encouraged him to turn his life over to Christ. Later, he was turned over to state prison officials at St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake, where he was scheduled to serve four years.

While in prison, Watson had a long time to process his past and to make plans for the future.

Prison Cell Bars – Black and White (file photo)

“Growing up in the projects in Portsmouth, you saw a lot of things and a lot of it was very traumatic but I thank God for his grace on me, and I made it out,” said Watson.

The pandemic struck last year and Watson was released early as part of the state’s efforts to reduce the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

His release date was May 1, 2020.

Exactly one year later, on May 1, 2021, Whitehead will become a registered voter.

In a Zoom interview from his home, Whitehead proudly displayed the executive order from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam that restores Whitehead’s rights to vote, serve in public office, on a jury, and as a notary. He’s a client of the nonprofit, Men Alleviating Negativity or The MAN Foundation.

(Photo: Regina Mobley/WAVY)

Dr. Jaclyn Walker is executive director of the mobile program that offers counseling and guidance at facilities including the Portsmouth jail.

“Maybe one day, our hopes are that he can run for office and be able to show that everyone deserves a second chance,” said Walker.

MAN Foundation and the Portsmouth sheriff on Saturday, May 1, 2021, will host a drive-thru voter registration event for returning citizens where they can learn their restoration status. If they are eligible, they’ll be able to register to vote well ahead of the next elections in Virginia.

Whitehead is looking forward to voting for the first time.

“I never voted in my life. Even when I had the opportunity to vote, I never took the opportunity to register to vote because when you are in a different society — a different world — it’s not a thought in your mind that you could make a difference,” said Whitehead.

Voters line up outside to cast ballots in the general election at the Henrico County general registrar’s office in Henrico County, Va., Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, on the first day of the state’s 45-day early voting period. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Northam has given a second chance to 69,000 returning citizens. N

ow, the MAN Foundation is calling on employers to give former felons a chance.

“Most people, once they are released [from custody], they do evolve and they want to be part of society. They want to be productive and they want to be employed,” said Dr. Velvet Smith, who is chair of the MAN Foundation Board.

(Photo coutesy: Summer Whitehead)

Whitehead is grateful for his new wife Summer and his new life. He works with his father as a brick mason and recently opened a business.

“I have a business called Whitehead Pressure Washing and Painting. It’s been established for about three months now and it’s doing very well,” said Whitehead.

(Photo courtesy: Summer Whitehead)

Whitehead offers a word of encouragement to those who are behind bars and ex-offenders who are returning to society.

“I just want everybody to know it’s not easy. There’s been a lot of adversity out there but you have to push past them. You have to stay firm in the word of God and he will propel you through,” said Whitehead.

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