Eleanor Shea

Eleanor Shea

2019 Undergraduate Fellow
Social Studies

Thesis title and description:
“Voting While Incarcerated: A Case Study of Vermont Prisons”

Voting, one of the most basic forms of democratic participation, is illegal for nearly all people currently incarcerated (Vermont and Maine being the two exceptions). While felony disenfranchisement has received more recognition recently, the focus remains on the impact on elections or post-incarceration re-enfranchisement. My study focuses on the individual, and the potential for voting to impact that person's understanding of themselves in society. According to life course theory, social institutions have the potential to establish reciprocal obligations and thus facilitate conforming behavior and reduce recidivism rates (Sampson and Laub, Nagin, and Uggen). In the context of voting, Democratic theory argues civic participation facilitates pro-social bonds. Thus, in my senior thesis I hope to link the two literatures, investigating the potential for voting as a mechanism to facilitate pro-social bonds, and subsequently increase desistance rates.

With support from the CAPS summer research fellowship, I will be conducting interviews with people who voted while incarcerated. I hope my qualitative research will shed light on the potential for voting as a mechanism of identity transformation from “delinquent” to “citizen”, providing the groundwork for broader commentary on the efficacy and morality of modern incarceration. Namely, that prisons would be best re-imagined to encourage practices of social inclusion, rather than exclusion and isolation.