Community organizer and former juvenile lifer Don “Ike” Jones mentors returning citizens and adjudicated youth. (Courtesy of Don Jones) Don "Ike" Jones
Community organizer and former juvenile lifer Don “Ike” Jones mentors returning citizens and adjudicated youth. (Courtesy of Don Jones)

Don “Ike” Jones said he and several other returning citizens plan to go to the polls as a group, a move he said signals their enthusiasm around a civic act that they’ve never had a chance to participate in.

Free from prison after 26 years, Don “Ike” Jones will vote for the first time—ever—in the general election this November.

The 45-year-old from the Nicetown section of Philadelphia was imprisoned for murder at the age of 17, and released in May 2019 in light of a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders were unconstitutional.

When he votes, Jones said, he will think of the elders and the youth in his community, and people still in prison.

“Who is going to protect their rights? Who is going to make sure they got their medical and everything is intact?” he asked. “Even the guys in prison—who’s going to make sure their rights are upheld? Who’s going to make sure that everything with them is correct, how it’s supposed to be?”

Jones said he’s not a prison abolitionist.

“I believe in law and order. I believe in law and order that’s done correctly. What we have now is not law and order. But I do believe that when you do certain things, there’s a price to pay but things need to be taken into consideration—your background, your mindset, [were] you on drugs?” he said. “People say this system is broken, but it’s not broken. The system operates how it’s designed to operate. Certain things need to be fixed in our justice system. You can’t build a house on a faulty structure. You have to have a solid foundation. The foundation of our criminal justice system in America is rotten. After slavery, there were so many laws in place to arrest free slaves and put us back in the cotton field. This is the nature of the criminal justice system. It’s built on corruption.”

Jones said he and several other returning citizens plan to go to the polls as a group, a move he said signals their enthusiasm around a civic act that they’ve never had a chance to participate in.

Jones also works in the community, mentoring returning citizens and adjudicated youth through a nonprofit he co-founded called GROWN (Gaining Respect Over Our Worst Nights).

Jone said his mentoring work began when he was imprisoned at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford; he organized inmates around voting.

“It was after Bush stole the election [in 2000]. We started [studying] local politics. Then, we started looking at numbers, like in Philadelphia, you have state reps getting into office on a thousand votes,” he said. “With over 250,000 ex-offenders in Philadelphia, we could affect any vote if we come out and vote in force. So, we started collecting information from guys inside the prison to form a voting bloc. Each individual gave us five family members’ names. We would contact family members. It helped because it gave us boots on the ground, on the outside. We [couldn’t] vote inside the prison, but our family [could] vote and be our voice. We really dug deep into politics [and] started to understand how politics affected every facet of our lives. We started having political meetings in the prison.”

Jones said his experience in prison made him realize just how much one election could affect a person’s life.

And he’s seen it even more since he was released in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I had a lot of kids I was mentoring in the rec center, they were playing basketball, they were doing some good things. Once COVID hit, they shut the rec centers down. Now the kids are out in the street, with nothing to do, so we are trying to get these rec centers open and that’s politics,” he said. “My vote is a vote for them. My vote is to try to get Philly jobs back, so these guys don’t have to go to the street.”

Jones said he blamed the Trump administration for its failures to properly handle the coronavirus pandemic from the start, and Philadelphia leaders for their “inability to enact a plan that would open the centers and at the same time keep our children safe.”

When people vote, Jones said, “we put a person in office who has the power to say no to things that might well benefit [us] and things that may work against [us].”

The most important thing President Donald Trump has done is choose three Supreme Court justices, who “are going to shape how America operates for the next 30 or 40 years,” Jones said.

“They make the law of the land. They make the final say. The president has the power, but the Supreme Court got more power. They got more power than the Senate got because whatever the Senate do, they can reject it,” Jones said. “It all goes back to who’s in office. We’ve got to vote our issues. If we don’t vote our issues, we are going to see the things we see now, continue to happen—the police doing what they want to do, police murdering our people in the streets, the justice system grinding our people up. If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain. You can’t stay on the sideline and dictate the game.”