For Ex-Felons, Limited Rights Mean A Future On Hold
Vikki Hankins wants nothing more in the world than to have her civil rights restored. Hankins, 43, lost the right to vote — and many others — when she went to a federal prison for selling cocaine in December 1990. She spent almost two decades behind bars for her crime.
Today, Hankins is an author and an undergrad who dreams of going to law school. She got out of prison four years ago and quickly applied to have her rights — like voting, serving on a jury and becoming a lawyer — restored.
Hankins was denied. She has reapplied three times since. Finally, last year she heard news — not from Florida's clemency board, but on the car radio — "that blew me away," she says.
What she heard was not good news. Hankins will have to wait five more years before she can reapply to have her civil rights restored. "How much more do you want me to suffer, legislators?" Hankins asks.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott changed the state law last year, making felons now wait from five to seven years after leaving prison, depending on the crime, to apply for the restoration of civil rights.
In Florida, it's not just a former felon's right to vote that's at stake. In Hankins' case, she isn't eligible to apply to be admitted to the state's bar and practice law. "I can go to law school," she says, "but when I'm done ... I won't be able to go to the Florida bar and take the exam, unless I have my rights restored.
"Right now," Hankins says, "I can't do anything."
A Dream On Hold
Soft morning light filters into the Orlando apartment Hankins calls her "refuge." Hankins talks about how she spent her time behind bars, reading anything she could get her hands on. "I wanted to be up to date on life outside prison," she says.
She also helped fellow prisoners write letters and work on their cases. While incarcerated, Hankins joined Advocate 4 Justice, an organization that works to reinstate parole in the prison system. Today, Hankins is the group's president. She also wrote in prison, hoping to better understand how she ended up dealing drugs. She ended up with a book about her journey, but couldn't find a publisher.
Once she was released, Hankins put together an Internet-based publishing company and has published about 20 books — including her own — for numerous clients.
She also enrolled in a two-year college program. She looked for work as a paralegal upon graduation, but "being an ex-felon without the rights restored, I can't get certified," she says. "Even with my education."
Hankins and her three siblings were raised by a single mother in a strict Baptist household in Florida. While they were poor, Hankins says her mother "was very adamant about ... our academics and spirituality." Her mother, she says, committed suicide when Hankins was 19.
In her senior year of high school, Hankins ran away with a football star who introduced her to drug trafficking and domestic violence. She says she takes full responsibility for the decisions she made in the past and wants to turn the page. But the government, she says, doesn't believe in her transformation.
"Do you know how that feels? What that can do to someone's psyche? When you're told that you cannot vote? That you cannot have your civil rights back?" Hankins asks. "Ultimately what it's saying, in my opinion, is that we still do not accept you. That's what the legislators are saying. I'm still seen as an outcast," she says.
"Twenty years in prison is a long time," Hankins continues. "But how long does the suffering go on, or the punishment?"
Staying On The Straight And Narrow
Hankins is resilient, but she admits that even someone with her spirit could break. In Florida, about 10 percent of the voting population is denied the vote. For many advocates, that raises serious concerns about whether the state's new laws unintentionally target certain demographics.
Hankins doesn't believe the government's argument that the new laws are largely based on a law-and-order philosophy. "You're lying about your reasons why you extended [the waiting] period," she says of the governor and the Florida Board of Executive Clemency. Her voice trembles as tears rush down her high cheekbones. "You are lying."
Hankins says she lived in a storage room and struggled even to find food when she came out of prison. "I was in a perfect predicament to commit a crime," she says, but she was determined to live on the straight and narrow. "And you say, well, we are going to see if Vikki Hankins is going to commit more crimes — are you kidding?
"I was so optimistic when I came out of prison," Hankins says. "I have an interest in law. Why should I have to go into some other [field] that I have no interest in? Why can't I have the freedom of choice of education, simply because the governor decides that I have to wait longer?"
Florida's backlog of cases is large, with 19,000 pending applications. Hankins says that probably means her wait will be longer than the five years she's been told to expect. But, she says, "I won't quit. I won't give up."
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.