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Annette John-Hall | How locked up means locked out

Today, Reggie Henderson will vote. It's a right most Americans take for granted. Not him. Not if you're an ex-felon like Henderson. Not if you've been locked up.

Today, Reggie Henderson will vote. It's a right most Americans take for granted. Not him.

Not if you're an ex-felon like Henderson. Not if you've been locked up.

You see, in the United States, if you've committed a felony, voting is an iffy proposition. Henderson, 34, is lucky he lives in Pennsylvania, where ex-felons and those on parole and probation are eligible to vote. In New Jersey, ex-felons can vote, too. Not so simple in Delaware. There, ex-felons have to wait five years before they can have their voting rights reinstated.

And it's a good thing that Henderson, who rebuilt his life and now operates three barbershops, doesn't live in Florida. The Sunshine State, land of hanging chads, bans ex-felons from voting - for life.

Can you say disenfranchisement? Prohibitive voting laws in 35 states mean that at any given time, 5.3 million American citizens - a disproportionate number of them African American men like Henderson - get no political say in their lives. Not only have they been locked up, they are locked out of the democratic process.

Forty years after passage of the National Voting Rights Act that ensured African Americans the right to vote once and for all, antiquated and discriminatory laws are still being enforced.

Common sense

Research shows that former offenders who vote are less likely to be re-arrested, and so common sense should tell you that denying them the right to participate is misguided.

For Henderson, tall and chiseled with a take-charge attitude, voting is more a privilege than a right. He believes inmates should not be allowed to vote, but ex-offenders should; "but if you violate your parole, you should lose your right. It's a package deal."

In today's primary, he will participate in his first election since being released in 2001. He's been eligible to vote, but until now has not been moved to cast a ballot.

"This election is a lot more intense," he says of the mayoral race. "You've got no choice but to pay attention to it."

For this husband and father of two (with one on the way), voting means having a stake in the community he once stomped on.

Henderson did 51/2 years at Huntingdon Prison in Central Pennsylvania. Even then, he was a compassionate thug.

"Two or three days after I robbed the guy, I told him where to find his car. Told him his license plates were in the glove compartment and the keys were in the ashtray," he says.

While in prison, a white inmate taught him the finer points of barbering. Released with a bankable skill, Henderson was determined not to be one of the 54 percent of African American males who backslide into jail.

Things have gotten busy at Henderson's barbershop, Professional Cutz, at 33d and Wharton. He also has a shop at 67th and Buist in Southwest, and on June 1 he's opening a new place at 54th and Elmwood in West Philly.

Making a difference

So far, he employs six barbers, hiring ex-offenders when he can, and serves as a networking resource for recently released ex-cons. He knows how it feels to have doors slammed in your face because you check the "yes" box next to "Have you ever committed a felony?" on your job application.

"I ain't gonna give you no sob story," he says. "I did my reformation all by myself."

Now he's taking his message of self-responsibility to the 'hood. When community leaders ask him to speak, he's there.

On election day, Henderson will vote because he has a right. But he is not looking for one person to solve the problems that rage in his Grays Ferry neighborhood - the gun-toting and the blight, disrespectful teens putting out their blunts in the street in front of impressionable elementary school kids, kids like his 10-year-old son.

In Henderson's mind, it doesn't matter who ends up getting the nomination today. If everyday people don't take responsibility for themselves and their communities, nobody wins.

"See," he says, leaning in as if he's about to unlock a secret, "freedom for me is not voting. Freedom for me is being home. Voting is more like supporting someone to do something about a problem. But it doesn't liberate you to do something about it."