James Jeter on Addressing Felony Disenfranchisement and Wrongful Convictions through the Full Citizens Coalition

Full Citizens Coalition (FCC) is a Connecticut-based action group focused on undoing the unjust harms caused by felony disenfranchisement–the suspension or withdrawal of the right to vote for those convicted of a criminal offense–and ensuring that every citizen is respected as a full citizen. James Jeter, Director of Dwight Hall’s New Haven Civic Allyship Initiative, serves as the Director of FCC. Through James’s leadership and support from Dwight Hall, the organization is growing and expanding its mission of advocating for the rights of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. Dwight Hall currently serves as the fiscal sponsor of the Full Citizens Coalition. 

FCC was originally conceptualized by Kennard Ray, who envisioned a group that would advocate for restoring voting rights to individuals on felony parole. James and Kennard met in prison when they were teenagers, and Kennard had been home from prison for nearly a decade before James was released in 2016. In this time, Kennard dedicated himself to community and political organizing, including national organizing for the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. After coming up with the idea for the organization, Kennard invited James to lead FCC with him. 

“He was my teacher,” reflected James. “We started working together on the first FCC campaign, and I was really learning advocacy. Kennard had worked at the Capitol for several years and had built great relationships. I was able to build on those connections.” 

James soon became the face of FCC, having about 15 years of parole left when he began working with the group. (Kennard was no longer on parole at that point.) James used his personal experiences and community knowledge to speak directly to the issue of felony disenfranchisement. 

Eventually, FCC was critical to achieving the goal that Kennard and James had initially set for the organization: in June 2021, the state of Connecticut restored voting rights to people with felony convictions who had been released from prison and placed on parole. 

From its inception, the story of Full Citizens Coalition intertwined with Dwight Hall on several levels. Around the same time he began his involvement with FCC, James came to Dwight Hall as a Tow Foundation Fellow to help develop the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI), then in its infancy. (Being from New Haven and also being a second-generation Ulysses S. Grant Foundation student, James described this return to Dwight Hall as a “homecoming”.) “The fellowship from the Tow Foundation and the freedom I had to do work in the community through YPEI was crucial to developing and growing FCC,” noted James. 

James was also engaging with numerous Dwight Hall students, most notably members of the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP), a Dwight Hall undergraduate-led member group. James was crucial in advising YUPP volunteers who wanted to do civic outreach to the Yale and New Haven communities on the topic of upcoming state elections. 

Through a series of formal and informal conversations, James encouraged students to broaden the understanding of felony disenfranchisement in the Yale community and consider how New Haveners and Connecticut natives felt about the issue and related problems. James recalled one particular discussion:

“. . . We started having conversations about how no real New Havener would want Yale students involved in their politics. But that’s a complete misnomer–they just don’t want you telling them who to vote for. There’s a difference between being involved and dictating, and how you align your allyship with the electoral process.”

James cites these discussions as the origins of the New Haven Civic Allyship Initiative. Soon after, James founded the Dwight Hall program to elevate the voices of community organizers and establish equitable relationships between activists, currently and formerly incarcerated people, students, and professors through workshops, trainings, and research. 

One of the program’s first in-house projects, Children of the Storm, has continued to bear fruit, most notably in the recent publishing of the Holding Me Captive website, a culmination of a years-long investigation by James, Professor Sarah Stillman from the Yale Investigative Reporting Lab, and Yale students into the wrongful conviction crisis in New Haven from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Similarly, FCC recently published a “Free Maleek” website and video, documenting the wrongful conviction of Maleek Jones during the height of the war on drugs. 

The current moment marks a period of reorganization and reimagining for the Civic Allyship Initiative. The COVID-19 pandemic made it extremely difficult for students to meet safely with community organizers and form relationships, impairing the work and programming of Initiative’s student cohort. Current student involvement occurs at the individual level in the absence of a consistent cohort of undergraduates, though James plans to begin rebuilding the cohort in the upcoming academic year. 

Today, James is also the sole Director of FCC. (Kennard has moved on to focus on entrepreneurial ventures.) Beyond advocating against felony disenfranchisement, FCC has grown in countless avenues, from running campaigns around wrongful convictions, commutations, and sentence modifications to assisting in parole hearings and finding employment for formerly incarcerated people. FCC is also beginning to develop curricula on the widespread effects of disenfranchisement to be instituted at colleges across Connecticut and co-taught by FCC members and professors. 

Through the support of community members and Dwight Hall, FCC is dedicated to pushing the state of Connecticut to re-examine a decade and a half of policing and prosecuting in New Haven that led to an exorbitant amount of wrongful convictions. “New Haven currently holds 50% of Connecticut’s exonerations, despite being only 3% of the state’s population,” emphasizes James. “There are many more cases that still need to be examined, and men are dying in prison under the weight of wrongful convictions.” 

At the moment, James is focused on advocating for Maleek Jones, whose case is being heard in federal court for what may be the final time. Maleek has spent nearly 30 years behind bars, maintaining his innocence amidst a felony conviction marred by witness coercion, recanted and dubious testimony, ineffective defense counsel, and the suppression of evidence. On July 31st, FCC will be protesting in front of 141 Church St during Maleek’s public hearing and invites others to join. Says James, “we’re rallying out there to let the court and the city know we’re watching how they rectify their history.”

You may contribute to Full Citizens Coalition here

About the Author