A new civics program in the Bexar County jail aims to inform inmates about politics and how they can become more involved in the democratic process, including getting registered to vote.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar introduced the program this week in partnership with MOVE San Antonio, a nonpartisan group seeking to increase civic engagement, and the Texas Organizing Project.

Organizers are looking into the possibility of putting a polling site inside the jail so that inmates eligible to vote may cast in-person ballots in the November general elections.

Two classes will be held every other week for inmates, one for men and another for women. Salazar said he approached the two partnering organizations in hopes of increasing inmates’ understanding and appreciation for their potential role in the democratic process.

“I knew that I needed somebody that will teach these folks about the process,” Salazar said.

Members of MOVE San Antonio and TOP will be responsible for creating the classes’ curriculum, which will ultimately be given final approval by Salazar.

In the voluntary classes, inmates will learn basic information about American civics, such as the differences between the branches of government and the roles of elected officials, said Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE San Antonio. They’ll also learn about their own voting rights.

“[The classes] teach them why their voice matters, regardless of whatever mistakes they made in the past,” Galloway said. “Ultimately they have a voice, and it matters to society.”

Salazar said he hopes in part that the courses will help inmates understand their voter eligibility status. Texas revokes voting rights for convicted felons while they serve a prison sentence, probationary sentence, and during parole, according to the Texas Secretary of State. Voting rights are restored after a full sentence has been served, and misdemeanor offenders do not lose their voting rights.

Of the more than 4,200 inmates inside the Bexar County jail, about 600 are imprisoned for misdemeanor offenses, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ February report.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Galloway said some of the inspiration for attempting to introduce a polling place came from Chicago Votes. The nonpartisan organization introduced polling booths into the Cook County jail in Chicago for Illinois’ March primaries. Inmates who had requested absentee ballots could cast their votes in a booth similar to ones found at polling locations.

Stevie Valles, executive director of Chicago Votes, said that roughly 600 pre-trial inmates cast absentee ballots, which were collected by election judges and poll watchers.

Valles said the organization hopes to introduce a full polling location, complete with voting machines, in the jail by the November general elections, giving inmates an opportunity to register and vote on the same day without having to first submit a request for an absentee ballot.

“Obviously we would love to replicate that here,” Galloway said. “The Sheriff and I are working on getting a polling place on election day inside Bexar County jail.”

Jacquelyn Callanen, elections administrator at the Bexar County Elections Department, told the Rivard Report on Friday that she could not comment on the feasibility of putting a polling place inside the jail facility because she was not familiar with the new civics program.

Salazar said eligible inmates are able to request and submit absentee ballots from the Bexar County Jail.

Bexar County Sheriff's Office & Detention Center
Bexar County Sheriff’s Office & Detention Center Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, said her organization also wants to see a polling place introduced, and that inmates are interested in local elections like the May primary runoffs.

“We’re already tweaking the [civics] curriculum based on the questions we’ve received” in the first two classes, Tremillo said.

Salazar said that the program is not funded by taxpayer dollars, but by the inmates, who pay for the civics and other education courses with their commissary dollars.

Galloway said that MOVE San Antonio would present information on all candidates to the classes. Salazar said inmates would get a thorough understanding of the differences between Republicans and Democrats.

“You make your mind up what you are,” Salazar said.

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.