As it does for many, Latashia Brimm’s pathway to a felony conviction started at a very young age. For her, it began with a sexually and emotionally abusive stepfather and a pattern of domestic violence. The fight to pass Amendment 4, also known as the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, spoke to Brimm’s need to regain her civic power and personal independence. With the right to vote reclaimed, she felt she would no longer be invisible.
Latashia Brimm was a single mother raising two children and working three jobs when she was charged with felony welfare fraud in Alachua County.
She was also managing symptoms of Crohn’s disease, an inflammation in the digestive tract that can lead to life-threatening complications.
Before she was charged, Brimm’s symptoms would periodically worsen, placing her in the hospital and interrupting her ability to work.
To ensure she had a safety net when her health declined, she signed up for a Section 8 Housing Voucher, a federal program that assists low-income families, as well as elderly and disabled individuals, by subsidizing their housing needs.
But this “safety net” had the reverse effect on Brimm’s life, eventually leading to her felony conviction as well as a complete upheaval of her professional career, personal life and physical and mental health.
The Rights Felons Lose
Brimm is one of over 1.6 million people in Florida who have been convicted of a felony. That’s 10.4% of the state’s voting-age population. African Americans make up 30% of that number with nearly 500,000 people convicted, according to The Sentencing Project.
The moment Brimm was convicted, she lost rights that many of us take for granted: the right to serve on a jury or in a public office, the right to purchase a firearm, the right to hold many professional licenses, and the right to vote.
The loss of these rights because of a felony conviction is called felony disenfranchisement.
And in Florida, it is easier to become disenfranchised than in many other states because the Sunshine State has a notably inclusive definition of what constitutes a felony.
Third-degree felonies, considered the least serious type, include non-violent offenses such as habitual traffic violations, cocaine possession, forgery and fraud.
“Lots of things that are misdemeanors in Georgia or even Texas are actually felonies in Florida,” said Neil Volz, Deputy Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
In The Beginning, There Was Violence
As it does for many, Brimm’s pathway to a felony conviction started at a very young age. For her, it began with a sexually and emotionally abusive stepfather and a pattern of domestic violence.
Brimm was a pre-teen when she first conjured up the strength to defend herself. She pressed charges against her stepfather and went to court to tell her story. But her family did not support her or her claims.
“The family would say, ‘Oh, she’s lying on him,’” Brimm said. “He would boohoo cry and boohoo cry.”
So when the time came to testify in court, she lied and walked back her original accusations. The case was dropped, and she was sent back home.
“After that, I ended up pregnant at 14 and 15 from him and, both times, had abortions,” she said.
Nearly 60% of incarcerated women in state prisons nationwide have histories of physical or sexual abuse, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Black women are especially at risk to experience domestic violence. In 2014, black females were murdered at a rate almost twice as high as white females. Most murders of black women are committed not by strangers but by men known by the victims, according to the Violence Policy Center.
Brimm dealt with these traumas as a child and into adulthood by suppressing her emotions. It wasn’t until her children were adults that she started to uncover those feelings and look for ways to process them.
Brimm’s healing process has included revisiting old wounds, like the ones inflicted by her stepfather years ago. So 30 years after she first pressed charges, she reasserted claims of sexual abuse against her stepfather in court. That case is still in motion today.
“It was a lot,” Brimm said, “and I don’t know if that made me stronger or tougher. I think all it did was make me angry, really, because I didn’t even know how to show emotions for the longest time.”
A Downward Spiral
In 2004, Brimm welcomed a friend and her children into her home in Alachua County, where she lived under her Section 8 voucher. Her friend was working on getting back on her feet after her house had been foreclosed.
Brimm added her friend to her lease and to her housing voucher, but she made what would become a crucial mistake—she neglected to report her friend’s income.
“I didn’t report their income at the time because I was working three jobs, and it was supposed to be temporary that they were going to be living there,” Brimm said. “But that, me not reporting her additional income, is what landed me with a felony for, well, it was felony welfare fraud.”
Despite enduring a violent and complicated childhood, Brimm had been successful in her career, working a number of administrative jobs, including a position with the Gainesville Housing Authority.
But the turmoil of her past was too great to emerge unscathed, especially in the shadow of additional trauma.
Once felony charges were filed against Brimm in 2004, her life began to spiral out of her control. She lost her jobs. Her health problems intensified as her stress increased, putting her in the hospital for treatment on several occasions. She lost her driver’s license after being unable to pay a parking ticket. And her friend left the house.
Brimm was granted deferred prosecution, which meant that instead of going to jail, she was ordered to pay a fee and was put on probation. But after violating probation more than once with traffic tickets, her deferred prosecution was no longer valid.
“They made me plead guilty to felony welfare fraud and finish out the probation and pay restitution,” Brimm said.
She was placed on house arrest, and suddenly, her identity had changed. She was a convicted felon.
“It’s almost like there’s a classification,” Brimm said. “I put myself in that classification after so many times of trying to get a job or trying to navigate those areas that I used to be able to navigate professionally and getting shunned and getting kind of torn. Deep down, I just kind of declassified myself and started being this person, and it was totally not who I am.”
Brimm was embarrassed, she was angry, and her self-esteem plummeted. She started to put up with things that she never would have tolerated in the past, and she felt that it was her lot in life to scrape by just to survive.
“So much weighed down on me, and I just lost myself and completely went into a deep depression and forgot who I was,” Brimm said. “I have to honestly say that even now, I’m still recovering.”
What Brimm experienced is not uncommon among people who have been charged with criminal offenses. Recent research has shown that being charged with a crime leads to declines in both physical and mental health, even if the conviction does not lead to incarceration.
Even a low level of interaction with the criminal justice system can lead to increased depression and a heightened level of stress.
Factors like mental health can influence whether a person commits another criminal offense after they are released, a concept known as recidivism.
A report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that five out every six prisoners released in 2005 were arrested again, at least once, in the following nine years.
For women who are mothers as well as sole breadwinners, the stakes are even higher. Incarceration creates trauma that spreads beyond just themselves.
“It’s trauma not just for the women, but for their families,” said Nancy Abudu, Deputy Legal Director of Voting Rights with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “You are creating generational trauma.”
Brimm remembers looking at her resume after her conviction, glancing over all of the jobs that she had before she was charged, and she would wonder what happened.
“And then I would say, ‘You know what? This is the direction my life was supposed to be going all the time.’ It may as well have been that I had never done any of that stuff, never done all those great things.”
An Odd Sense of Relief
In a span of just 24 hours, Jhody Polk was charged with five felonies while trying to flee to New York with her two children and one of their fathers. Her simple plan to empty the safe at the bail bonds place where she used to work had gone awry. Now, the bail bonds place was in flames and her grandmother begged her to turn herself in, or risk being shot. She was 25.
Before that night, Polk had a clean record. She was in college. But, growing up with little means in East Gainesville, Polk always figured she would serve time, like her story was already written. Incarceration was embedded in her community.
The arrest rate for black people in Alachua County is nearly four times higher than the rate for white people, and black people make up 70.8% of the total inmate population in the county, according to a 2018 study by the University of Florida Bureau for Economic and Business Research.
Statistically speaking, Polk was 8.8 times more likely to end up in prison than her white counterparts.
Polk felt an odd sense of relief that first night in the Alachua County Jail.
Polk served the first part of her sentence at the Lowell Correctional Facility, the largest women’s prison in the U.S. She was transferred partway through to the Gadsden Correctional Facility, where she trained to become a law clerk and help other inmates with their cases. She made friends.
“It was in prison surrounded by other women of color that I learned it was OK to not only be me, but that I got to decide what that meant,” Polk wrote in a Self Narrate column in the Gainesville Sun.
“I literally had to go to prison to get free.”
After her release in 2014, Polk landed a job at a Motel 6, enrolled in the College of Central Florida and regained custody of her kids, who were now 7 and 9 years old. She worked her way up to manager, where she would give preference to people with records when making hiring decisions. But even though she was a post-prison success story, Polk felt more opportunity and power in prison than she did at home.
On the outside, she struggled with finding stable housing for her and her children. She moved a lot and slept in her car for a month-long stint while her children stayed with her brother.
“When I couldn’t help myself, I learned how to help others,” Polk wrote.
In 2017, Polk started the Florida Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, a nonprofit that uses community organizing as a tool to build safer communities and spaces.
Fighting for a Voice, Fighting to Vote
In 2018, Brimm was living as a homemaker in Gainesville, watching her daughter’s kids while she was on house arrest. She would pick up odd jobs cutting hair or cleaning houses now and then, but she had avoided applying for jobs for years out of the fear of rejection because of her felony classification.
“It was killing me not to be contributing to society, not to have my own income coming in and not to feel like a productive adult,” she said.
She began to attend meetings at the Civic Media Center, a nonprofit library that supports grassroots organizing and activism in Gainesville. The meetings were focused on canvassing for Amendment 4, also known as the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative.
After attending a few meetings for Amendment 4, Brimm met Polk, who was also working as the Central Florida Organizer for Say Yes to Second Chances, an initiative organized by the FRRC to get Amendment 4 on the ballot.
The fight to pass Amendment 4 spoke to Brimm’s need to regain her civic power and personal independence. She remembers watching Obama’s victory in 2008 as bittersweet without the ability to cast her own vote.
Fighting for the right to vote was like fighting to have a voice in society again. With that right reclaimed, she felt she would no longer be invisible.
“Not having a voice just kind of further reinforced the fact that I was nobody,” she said. “Not being able to vote, it was like another trauma to me. It was just another way of me getting kicked.”
Tequila McKnight is one of many former felons who joined a grassroots movement to campaign for Amendment 4. Voters ultimately passed the bipartisan measure by a majority in 2018. Since then, mounting legal battles and extensive barriers to reentry have stifled the amendment’s intended impact: to re-enfranchise over 10% of Florida’s population.
Women like Latashia Brimm and Tequila McKnight are a growing segment of the U.S. electorate and an increasingly impactful force when it comes to supporting, organizing and speaking for the needs of their communities. Their efforts can be seen in new, creative collaborations and initiatives that work to shift civic power to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that have been historically disenfranchised.
Credits: Photos and graphics courtesy The Sentencing Project, Latashia Brimm, Jhody Polk & T.Mushell