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‘I was in tears, man’: Former inmate votes for governor for first time since rights were restored

Published: Oct. 29, 2021 at 11:23 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Otha Holden has been fighting all his life, and he has spent nearly a decade of it fighting behind bars.

“I was caught up in another lifestyle, man. I was different,” Holden said. “I’m a two-time felon, but I’m also an asset.”

Holden was just 18 when a life of crime on the streets got him sentenced to nine years in prison, but since his release back in 2017, he’s spent the last four years clawing his way back to becoming a productive member of society.

“I’ve always been a fighter,” Holden said. “I got a college degree; I got a four-year plumbing apprenticeship, I got my class A CDL, I’m a three-year licensed driver.”

In the years since out of prison, Holden says he has turned to boxing as a release. He now serves as a mentor to youth, using boxing as a tool to redirect them from the streets. Holden also travels across the country, participating in different boxing competitions promoting his brand.

But Holden says for the longest time, the one thing that kept him from being a full citizen was regaining his voting rights after going to prison.

“The one thing I couldn’t accomplish was getting my rights back,” Holden said. “I didn’t have the right to vote even though I had an opinion on so many different issues.”

That was until recently when a life-changing encounter connected Holden to restoring his rights.

“A week and a half champ!” Holden laughed. “I’ve only had my right to vote for a week and a half!”

So Thursday, with a championship boxing belt over his shoulder, this former felon strutted to the polls early to vote for the first time in over a decade.

“I have never voted for a governor in Virginia,” Holden said. “I cried. I was in tears, man.”

Earnest Pervall is another former inmate who understands the emotion of voting for the first time. Pervall had his rights restored for the first time last year - just in time for the 2020 presidential election.

“The first time I voted, it was an awesome feeling because I feel as though I had a voice - my vote counted,” Pervall said. “I said I would like to put this person in the office, and I had a voice for the first time. So for me to vote, it spoke volumes because it was my first time hearing my voice in the public.”

Thanks to Governor Ralph Northam, nearly 70,000 more former inmates got their civil rights restored in March.

“Too many of our laws were written during a time of open racism and discrimination, and they still bear the traces of inequity,” Northam said. “We are a Commonwealth that believes in moving forward, not being tied down by the mistakes of our past. If we want people to return to our communities and participate in society, we must welcome them back fully—and this policy does just that.”

Holden says he wasn’t aware that he could have his restored until he learned about community activists helping people just like him regain their rights.

“I got the link from Ms. Community Clo, so I reached out to her,” Holden said.

Holden is referring to Clovia Lawrence, a radio show and host and activist, and executive director of Project Give Back to the Community, which serves as a platform for prisoners, former prisoners, and all citizens of Virginia to give back and contribute positively to their community.

“We believe in holistic re-entry,” Lawrence said. “We believe that men and women, once they return from incarceration - they should be fully restored as citizens, that includes voting.

During the 2021 election season, Lawrence has been helping returning citizens regain their rights by navigating them to the online restoration portal.

“Otha had reached out to me and said voting has been on his heart for a long time,” Lawrence said. “I sent him the link at restore.virginia.gov and told him all he had to do was look up the name that you were convicted with and the last four digits of your social security number.”

Lawrence said shortly after getting his rights restored. She also helped him register to vote.

Now, Holden uses the same hand that once put him behind bars to lead by example and make a tangible difference one vote at a time.

This right here is the hand that matters,” Holden said. “That’s the hand that I write with, and that’s power.”

If you are a former inmate and haven’t had your rights restored, it’s too late to vote in this election, but it’s not too late to get them restored for the next one. You can find the link to get your right back, HERE.

Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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