By Christian Williams
Detainee Americans for Civic Equality (DACE) at Coalinga State Hospital is a newly organized group of politically active residents at the 1,500-bed mental health facility in Pleasant Valley. Having in recent years seen the population rise rapidly and incrementally the number of voters registered too, many of them believe it’s now time to act. For the first time since the facility’s opening in 2005, a serious effort is under way among detainee patients to unify. And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence too that the sex offenders detained for long-term treatment could make a difference in some future elections.
According to the DACE literature, the group is being formed around one simple nonpartisan goal: “To make our votes count at the ballot box. It is past time that we strive to reach out and take the opportunity the Constitution affords us to become more active in government; to begin to be more fully involved and directly assist in the political process. Such an opportunity is indeed within the purported goals of mental-health treatment, personal betterment and self-advocacy while we accept our responsibility for the good of the wider community.
“Our rights as citizens do not operate in a vacuum. We need to look over these high walls, beyond our past failures and personal needs to become better persons where possible and attain revaluation in society. That means accepting that citizenship also has its obligations, whatever our plight, and one of the most fundamental duties we must never forfeit is the privilege of voting in America.”
Ultimately, the stated aim of the DACE is to garner a solid voter block of 500 or more among the hospital’s population and begin to take unified stands on candidates for state or local office and on specific ballot measures. No doubt state planners did not consider this eight years ago when deciding to place more than a thousand men in Pleasant Valley once they’d completed their prison terms—most eventually being eligible to vote following parole discharge during their hospitalization. Not surprisingly, the results of a recent informal poll at the hospital indicate that the voter block goal may have already been surpassed.
What makes this even more interesting is the common knowledge that at times races for city, county and some state offices can come down to a difference of a few votes—sometimes just 50 or 100 ballots alone will determine who takes office and who doesn’t, which ballot measures pass and which do not. That, plainly and simply, is the political landscape in rural areas such as Coalinga and Fresno County where these “detainee Americans” reside.
What remains to be seen is whether this rather unique population of voters has the unprecedented potential to make a difference in small-turnout elections—and, in a more limited way, in California statewide politics too. What is obvious is that the movers and shakers didn’t see this coming and will now perhaps begin to sit up and take notice. The “new reality” could be a bit unsettling to some in that, once unified—even while shut away in this Pleasant Valley “hosprison” as the patients call it—they perhaps can become the new makers or breakers at some modest level in California politics.
Now for the big Senate District 16 News: It’s well known that there is a small turnout on single-issue ballots, especially in summer-time elections and during short-term campaign seasons, all of which describe the upcoming Special Senate District 16 election. This is something the DACE organizers early on recognized as significant in this election and as one that could be especially affected with a solid block of voters. They indicate they do not intend to waste this opportunity—that the candidates and issues have been vetted—and they’re focused now on lending their support to the candidate most likely to respond to their concerns.
No one’s more aware than the DACE organizers of what’s at stake and how their votes can come into play for the current cast of senate candidates. This intensity is clear from the DACE literature too: “By not exercising our right to vote in past years, we’ve let the power of our significant civil-detainee voting block lie dormant, like a sleeping dragon.
Perhaps this year we may even make history as the new reality in Pleasant Valley. Nothing like this has happened before in the state of California—or any other state for that matter. When and in what world or universe have sex offenders, America’s modern-day lepers, ever organized themselves to the extent that real political change could be effected by means of such a game-changing vote?”
Indeed, society has determined that these men labeled “sexually violent predators” were to be locked away “out of sight and out of mind,” but what was not apparent until now is that they’re no longer willing to abdicate their voice at the ballot box.
That sentiment was summed up recently by one resident at the hospital wishing to remain anonymous who said, “This is the kind of thing right-minded people have to respect about our country. It’s what makes America great. No matter how low on the rungs of society’s ladder, a citizen is a human being, every citizen has the vote.
“For the politicos you could say we’re like a treasure trove buried under a garbage heap—and this will certainly make for some rather surreal challenges to come, considering the community’s negative view of us. And all that’s understandable.
“The million dollar question is, Will the vote-seekers still try to tip-toe in under the radar and pry open that trove while holding their noses? Hey, that’s okay if they do. I bet most voters agree, we’ve been pinching our noses for years too!”
Chris “Irish” Williams is a resident patient at Coalinga State Hospital and coordinator for the DACE Steering Committee. Contact him at Rt. 4234, Box 5003, Coalinga, CA 93210, or by voicemail at 206-600-1177.