SUMTER, SOUTH CAROLINA — It’s a Thursday afternoon in central South Carolina and inmates at the Sumter Lee Regional Detention Center are lying on their beds or sitting around cafeteria-style tables watching TV, abiding by the jail’s mandated quiet time.
Then Brenda Williams walks in.
One inmate flips off the television. Other men in blue jumpsuits, who had been confined to their bunks along the perimeter, quickly come join the few dozen already at the tables. The guards, positioned behind a desk at the entrance of the pod, turn their attention to these new visitors. Brenda starts singing.
“I’m on the battlefield for my Lord and I promise him I will serve him ‘til I die,” she belts out from the middle of the gym-like room, bending her knees in passion. Her voice echoes around the metal bunk beds on the second floor balcony.
Williams is less than five feet tall, but her presence in the jail’s cramped, sterile pod feels far greater.
She is there today to follow up on absentee ballot applications for a handful of inmates, who she recently learned are allowed to vote behind bars because they’re serving time for civil convictions. Since retiring from medicine and shutting down her family practice in 2014, Williams has dedicated her life to registering Sumter residents to vote — including those behind bars.
“Being out here trying to help these men and women who are locked up is like swimming upstream in a waterfall of injustices,” she said, speaking to a small group of men serving time for delinquent child support payments.
The barriers today are greater than usual. One inmate, Norman McGee, has requested an absentee ballot, but a discrepancy in the South Carolina Election Commission (SCEC) website lists him as currently serving time for shoplifting — a criminal conviction. Inmates with criminal convictions cannot vote, but McGee claims, and the prison records corroborate, that he is serving time for missing child support payments and should receive an absentee ballot.
Without her advocacy, McGee and other inmates tell me they likely would not exercise their right to vote. Nobody else in the prison reminds them to mail in absentee ballot applications, or to check and make sure their voter registration is still active. Instead of helping them secure voting rights, the state has been doing the opposite. After the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states like South Carolina have been allowed to pass restrictive voting measures, and Williams’ work has become even more crucial.
With just days until the South Carolina Republican primary and a week until the Democratic primary, it’s Williams’ crunch time. The inmates tell me she stops by their prison pod, as they call it, almost every day. Each time, she comes with new announcements and forms for them to fill out, and new gospel hymns to share.
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
More than half of the electorate in this Saturday’s Democratic primary is expected to be black, and the candidates are already clamoring for their support. But that number won’t include a large portion of the state’s African American population: More than 33,000 people in South Carolina are behind bars, and 62 percent of the prison population is black.
Most of those people are not eligible to vote. In 2012, the state legislature took voting rights away from state residents on parole and today, more than 48,000 South Carolina residents in prison, on parole, and on probation are disenfranchised by felony or misdemeanor convictions. African Americans make up 64 percent of South Carolina’s disfranchised population, even though they comprise only 27 percent of the state’s voting age population. One out of every 27 African American voters is disfranchised in South Carolina, compared to one out of 65 South Carolina voters.
Until that changes, Williams says it is essential for her to make sure that every eligible voter in the state can vote, especially in her heavily black, low-income community. Though it’s long been a deep red state, President Obama secured 44 percent of the vote in the 2008 and 2012 elections by mobilizing the state’s black voters.
Likely acknowledging their diminishing electorate, Republicans in the state legislature made efforts in 2012 to shut down voter registration drives. The efforts failed in South Carolina, though other states were successful. Williams has continued, and even expanded, her efforts, and now she runs one of the largest inmate voter registration drives in the country.
Though the state continues to attempt to impede her work, South Carolina’s black residents already vote at higher rates than those in other states — meaning the men and woman Williams is registering could make all the difference this year.
Swimming Upstream From Birth
Williams has experienced the effects of racism in the South her entire life. She was the first baby born in Savannah, Georgia in 1952, coming into this world just minutes after midnight on January 1st. The local diaper and milk companies ran promotions offering free supplies for a year for the first baby born every year, but Williams was disqualified because of the color of her skin.
“From the day I was born into this world, this country told me in a special way that little black girl, you don’t matter,” she said, sitting in the empty waiting room of her former medical practice. “My parents recognized the fact that this little baby, just moments old, will be treated in a way that’s not kind and decent and nice and compassionate, no matter what. She’s going to have to struggle and fight all of her born days.”
She was reminded of that struggle when she was in the fourth grade. That year, the local NAACP sued the county board of education to integrate the schools, and Williams’ father, a NAACP member, was quoted in the newspaper. That quote made her father a target of the Ku Klux Klan.
Williams remembers that a Klan member taped a picture of a burning cross to her father’s car one morning, and then that night, threw a cinder block through her parents’ bedroom window.
“I still remember it like it happened five seconds ago,” she said. “We were awakened to the sound of crashing glass in the house. It was a terrifying experience.” For the next week, her father sat by the front door with a rifle in his lap.
Brenda’s parents prioritized her education, and she later met her husband, Joseph Williams, during a summer program for minority college students to encourage them to go into medicine. After medical school, the couple moved to Sumter and started their medical practice together.
For the past 32 years, Williams and her husband have helped their largely low-income patients register to vote. She says she wouldn’t force anyone, but would remind everyone who came through her office doors about the importance of participation.
Williams carries a card case in her purse everywhere she goes with her father’s NAACP membership card from 1961. The back of that card lists the group’s mission, which Williams read aloud.“Number two, check this out,” she said, excitedly pointing to the frayed paper card. “To secure a free ballot for every qualified American citizen.”
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
“Now stop right there.” She looked astonished. “We do voter registration. In 1961, they were talking about voting, before the Voting Rights Act. I was nine years old.”
Seeing how that mission is still as important as ever, Williams created her nonprofit organization, the Family Unit Inc., which focuses on voting rights but also helps to alleviate poverty by providing housing and employment to low-income community members. Since retiring, she has dedicated most of her time to registering inmates and former inmates to vote.
A typical day for Williams includes a visit to the prison and a stop at the local elections office to submit or pick up paperwork. She drives around Sumter in her large SUV, stark white and spotless except for a bright blue Bernie Sanders sticker on the bumper.
Last Thursday, Williams stopped by the voting office to bring her friend and fellow voting advocate, Lottie Spencer, to cast her in-person absentee ballot. She also had several envelopes labeled with names, Social Security numbers and counties, filled with inmates’ paperwork, ready to be filed. Williams laughed at the mention of how organized she must be to keep track of all everything.
“It’s organized chaos,” she said, stuffing the envelopes into her bag.
‘We Are Their Voices On The Outside’
While wandering through the elections office last week, Williams ran into a former patient and the two women caught up on their lives. “You know God always has something up his sleeve,” Williams said. “I thought I was going to retire and relax, but I’m busier than ever.”
Since 2008, Williams has registered at least 4,000 inmates to vote. She focuses her energies on this population because nobody else does.
“When you talk about voting in the South, there’s a special cadre of voters that society has yet to recognize and respect,” she said. “And those are persons who have a history of being incarcerated — locked out, locked in — in our society.”
Without her advocacy, Williams said many of the inmates would not know, let alone have the interest or energy to go through the process to register to vote and get an absentee ballot. “They’re thinking about going home from jail,” she said. “They’re not thinking about this kind of thing.”
And even when many of them do go home, anyone convicted of a violent felony in South Carolina has to pay a $50 fee to get an ID with a “convicted violent offender” code placed on the back side. Unless the formerly incarcerated have documents like proof of residence or a pay stub — which many people upon release do not have — that ID is required to re-register to vote.
One of the inmates who is benefiting from Williams’ advocacy is Norman McGee. The SCEC lists him as currently serving time for a conviction, while the Department of Corrections records show that he is awaiting trial for criminal charges but only serving time for missed child support right now.
“There’s no uniformity or standardization in record keeping between the South Carolina Election Commission and the Department of Corrections,” Williams said. “The system is set up to rob the vote from as many people as possible, primarily African Americans.”
For the past week, she has been on a crusade to get McGee an absentee ballot before the Democratic primary. She says McGee is the “spark that started the fire” — the discrepancy in his records reminded her how many people may be disenfranchised because of clerical, bureaucratic mistakes like this. Since the Supreme Court took away the DOJ’s power to monitor voting changes in South Carolina, Williams has been even more skeptical about the state’s records.
She has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and the Department of Justice. She has emailed back and forth with Marci Andino, the executive director of the SCEC, dozens of times. While driving home from the jail last week, she took a call from a DOJ voting section attorney who said unfortunately the issue does not fall under federal oversight.
In the meantime, McGee will not be able to participate in the state’s primary. He has voted in past elections, but this year, he will spend the primary Election Day in the Echo pod, rotating between his bunk, the tables, and the small “outdoor” space with skylights.
“I feel discriminated against,” McGee said. “I can’t vote because of a civil charge — I’m on child support — and I don’t think that’s right to not be able to vote for being on child support. That’s not fair.”
‘A Perfect Shining Example’
Williams said she saw a surge in interest in Sumter to become registered to vote in 2008, when Obama was first running for president. “The energy and enthusiasm about voting was and still is unreal,” she said. That year, “98 percent of the people in the jail had never voted before. Just about the whole jail had never voted in their lives.”
Williams helped hundreds of inmates and former inmates to register before that presidential election. When the voter registration cards arrived, she held a ceremony in the prison, calling each inmate’s name one-by-one. “Everyone would break out into applause,” she said.
One of those people who registered for the first time in 2008 was 38-year-old Timmy Singletary, a lifelong Sumter resident who served five years in prison as a teenager. Singletary and his brother, Jimmy, saw Williams knocking on doors to register voters at a housing project that year and asked how they could help. Timmy has since become a volunteer with The Family Unit’s “Do Right Crew” and frequently speaks to younger community members and attends city and county council meetings to talk about the importance of voting.
“I think about what my ancestors went through just to get the right to vote,” he said. “They went through a lot of suffering, pain, trial and tribulations, just for us to get to this point.”
Williams calls Singletary a “perfect shining example” of what can happen to people who are formerly incarcerated but discover a way to become involved in their communities.
“Mr. Singletary once had no reason to actually go out and vote,” Williams said. “Society didn’t offer much other than racism, prejudice, discrimination. That’s all many people see from day to day. Poverty, despair. It’s infectious, the desire to want to do something in their lives that matters.”
Singletary says that he’s trying to get as many people as he can involved in politics before this year’s presidential election, because “it’s going to affect us for the next four years if we don’t vote for someone who’s going to do the right thing.”
“To have people who are once incarcerated now becoming a functioning participant in our society, I think is so beautiful,” Williams said.
On Williams’ trip to the prison last Thursday, she said her goodbyes to the inmates and then started heading toward the central spiral of corridors, ready to move on to the next pod of men. But one inmate wasn’t ready to let her go.
Williams noticed him holding his hand up to stop her. “Ah, you wanted a song,” she said, smiling.
“I know it was the blood,” she and Spencer sang, reciting a gospel hymn. “One day when I was lost, he died on yonder’s cross. I know it was the blood for me.” The inmates whistled and applauded as she exited.
She looked over her shoulder: “I’ll be back on Monday.”