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Philly Prisons Ramp Up Voter Education For Inmates

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The Philadelphia Department of Prisons is stepping up its efforts to educate thousands of inmates about their right to vote in the upcoming May election.

About 70 inmates sat on a cell block inside of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road Thursday afternoon, listening to a presentation about their right to cast a ballot for the May 16th primary.

"We do have a population here that are still eligible to participate in the election," says Yolanda Walker-Lockwood, director of the prison's Office of Community & Justice Outreach.

She says inmates who are detained and awaiting trial, and are not yet serving time for a felony, retain their right to vote.

Prison officials estimate that as of April 20th, city jails house about 6650 inmates, 78% of which are pre-trial and/or dealing with misdemeanors and therefore could potentially have the right to vote.

Walker-Lockwood says the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, as a policy, educates inmates through public service announcements shown on closed circuit television. They also send social workers to cell block to cell block to give voter registration and absentee ballot information to inmates.

"I do several of these a week," says Dawn Venson-Nave, a social worker in the prisons. She led today's outreach effort.

Reporter: "Do the inmates actually register?"
Venson-Nave: "More than you would think."

Walker-Lockwood says the prison registered 410 inmates in time for the May 16th election and accept voter registrations year round. With regard to candidate information, inmates are on their own.

"We are able to inform them of the offices that are open, but we are not able to discuss the candidates," says Walker-Lockwood, "many of the inmates buy the Daily News and they'll get their information from there."

Venson-Nave told inmates that the office of District Attorney, judicial seats, and more that could impact their lives are up for a vote on May 16th.

So far, it's unclear whether any candidates have reached out to the voters on the inside. Either way, prison officials say, it's not their job to influence any inmate with regard to voting.

"It's their choice on whether they want to vote," says Walker-Lockwood, "they do not have an obligation to do that, but we have an obligation to make sure they are aware of their rights."

While none of the inmates attending today's presentation agreed to speak on tape, in an informal poll regarding who planned to vote, nearly 20% said they would vote absentee.

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