Rob Stewart turned his life around in prison - and became an advocate for voting rights.
By Andy Steiner
Rob Stewart (B.A. ’12) doesn’t make excuses when he talks about going to prison. Even before his arrest and conviction in 2007 for first-degree felony possession of cocaine and methamphetamine with intent to sell, his life was centered on drug use. “I was spinning in a downward trajectory,” he says.
Stewart, who is from Owatonna, Minnesota, started using drugs and alcohol at age 15. In 2005, when he was 24, he was arrested with four pounds of marijuana in his car and three months later was arrested for possession of a meth pipe. Both offenses are fifth-degree felony controlled substance possession and resulted in a four-month jail sentence in prison in St.Cloud, Minnesota, and probation.
In some ways, the isolation of prison life was a godsend for Stewart, 34. After he was found guilty in 2007, he went back to his cell and cried for three days. “Then a friend who was also in jail came and knocked on my cell door. He said, ‘You have to come out and have lunch. There’s nothing you can do about it so you might as well make the best of it.’” Stewart came out of his cell, ate, and began what turned out to be an extreme life makeover. “I decided that I would try to make the most of my time while I was in there,” he says. “I started going to programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. I started going to Bible study, life skills classes, just trying to take advantage of all the opportunities that were available.”
Stewart was sentenced to 100 months of correctional control—a combination of incarceration and supervised release—for his 2007 conviction. He reduced his time behind bars by taking part in a boot camp program for nonviolent drug offenders at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Willow River/Moose Lake. It proved to be a key part of his recovery.
“You get out of bed at 5:15. You go to bed at 9:15 every day. You don’t take a nap. You can’t sit on your bed during the day. It is a very regimented, structured program. That was very helpful for me because I hadn’t had that type of structure for a very long time,” Stewart says.
Stewart—who had spent nearly a year at Hamline University in St. Paul after graduating high school—tutored other inmates in St. Cloud and taught adult basic education and helped prepare them for General Education Development testing.
As someone who had grown up middle class and had a supportive family, Stewart knew he had advantages over his peers who had limited support and little education before they were incarcerated. Such basic inequities, which often broke down along class and racial lines, were striking to Stewart.
“Look at my situation: When I was released in 2009, I walked into a good, supportive family that was willing and able to help me get back on my feet. That has made a lot of the difference post prison, compared with my peers who didn’t have a family that was able to be supportive financially and emotionally. There are many supportive families out there who are willing to help get their loved ones back on their feet, but they are unfortunately not able. While I was incarcerated, I started to feel really passionate about that type of thing,” Stewart says.
Stewart spent his first year out of prison on intensive supervised release, completing a year of studies at Alexandria Community College and living in his parents’ cabin. In fall 2010, after the terms of supervised release were completed, he moved to the Twin Cities and enrolled at the University, completing his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in the sociology of law, criminality, and deviance in 2012. He’s now on track to complete his Ph.D. in sociology in 2017 with a focus on punishment, law, crime, and collateral consequences.
In the years since his imprisonment, Stewart has committed himself to advocating for equal footing for ex-offenders. An important foundation for building this equal footing is enhancing voting rights for people who have served time behind bars.
“The American penal system is based on the belief that people can redeem themselves, so if we support this concept, we should give former felons the opportunity to rejoin society,” Stewart says. “The more people that can vote, the better. When people have a say in their community, they feel tied to that community. I think that can have only positive benefits.”
Stewart views voting as a behavior that people learn from their parents—thus, denying voting rights has a negative multigenerational impact. “If your parents voted a lot, then you’ll vote. You’ll see the importance and you’ll believe that you have power in your community. Children whose parents can’t vote are less likely to vote when they become adults,” he says.
Minnesota law bars felons from voting until they have completed their full sentence, including probation and supervised release. And Minnesota has some of the longest probation sentences in the nation, says Stewart. “There are a significant number of people in this state who get 10, 20, 30 years of probation. Imagine a 25-year-old who’s on felony probation and can’t vote for over a decade. That’s a pretty significant amount of time to be paying taxes, to have kids going through the school district, to live in a town, own a business, but have absolutely have no say in the different laws and restrictions you’re subject to.”
It’s not just felons who lose out when their voting rights are denied. Society does, too, says Stewart’s adviser Chris Uggen, a University of Minnesota professor of sociology who studies the effects of mass incarceration. “We are locking up a large percentage of males between the ages of 25 to 54,” Uggen says. “It’s hurting society in many ways.” The issue particularly impacts African American men, he says—as many as 1 in 4 are blocked from voting due to felony convictions.
Many of these convictions, Uggen says, are a result of stiffer federal sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenses handed down beginning in the 1970s. In subsequent years, lawmakers have tightened penalties; in some parts of the United States, people convicted of drug crimes may spend years in prison and decades on probation or supervised release without the right to vote in local or national elections.
Minnesota, Uggen says, has significant racial disparities in arrest rates: For African Americans, the annual arrest rate is 227 per thousand—seven times the white rate of 32 per thousand.
Technology further limits the ability of people to get out from under the shadow of their criminal records, Uggen says. “Technology makes criminal history so much more widely available. A few years ago, it was fairly typical for young men to have a brush with the law and then later go on to grow up, find jobs, have families and settle down. Now it is so much more difficult to outrun those records.”
Because past convictions appear on background checks, and mug shots can show up on a simple Google search, people who have served time in prison have a harder time finding employment or stable housing, Uggen says.
“I had a student who had a conviction over 10 years ago. After that, he was a model employee, but he had a very difficult time getting housing. When I was younger, if I had had an arrest record, I could simply move from Minnesota to Wisconsin and nobody would ever know about my past. In those days you could leave things in the rearview mirror.”
Uggen has found that a record of even low-level offenses limits the likelihood that an applicant will land a job interview. “Fourteen million people are arrested every year in the United States. The percentage of people arrested for serious violent crimes is a tiny fraction of that. In some of my research, we sent people out to apply for jobs. If they had a three-year-old disorderly or other low-level arrest on their record, they had a hard time getting a call back from potential employers,” Uggen says.
He sees some progress. A 2014 Minnesota law, for instance, requires employers to wait until later in the hiring process—at the interview stage or when a conditional job offer has been extended—before asking an applicant about his or her criminal record or conducting a criminal background check. “It means that the applicant can at least get in the front door,” Uggen says.
Stewart was brought up in a family that valued political participation, so not being able to vote for so many years has been tough. Since his supervised release will be over later this year, he will be eligible to vote in the next election.
A couple of years ago, Stewart became active in the Second Chance Coalition, a partnership of over 50 Minnesota organizations that advocate for laws, policies, and practices that enable former inmates to redeem themselves and rejoin society. He is a Second Chance volunteer spokesperson and advocates at the Legislature to change laws on felon voting rights.
“When it’s the first Tuesday in November and everybody else is walking around with a little red sticker that says, ‘I Voted,’ but you can’t, it’s a pretty depressing experience,” Stewart says. “The ability to vote conveys a signal of inclusion. When a community says, ‘You can vote,’ that’s basically saying, ‘You’re an important, valuable part of this community.’ That’s a message more of us need to hear.”
Andy Steiner is a writer and editor living in St. Paul.