On a cold day in January, Lewis Conway Jr. walked around the apartment complex in Austin, Texas, where he stabbed a man nearly 27 years ago. He spent two decades under the supervision of the state’s correctional system as punishment. He doesn’t shy away from talking about any of it. “It was transformational,” he says.
In part, it is Conway’s experience inside the criminal justice machine that is motivating his most recent endeavor: running for public office. Last December, he announced that he would seek a seat on the Austin City Council, representing both the neighborhood where he grew up and the one where he committed his crime. The point of running, he says in a video posted to his campaign’s Facebook page, “is to give people who have been historically marginalized, historically penalized and criminalized an opportunity to become active participants in a participatory democracy.”
His experiences certainly make him an important candidate, able to connect with the thousands who have been isolated and defined by previous misdeeds of theirs or others — particularly in the city’s minority communities, which as elsewhere are disproportionately impacted by the system. But his past might also make him ineligible to do so, depending on how you read a 33-year-old state statute that would seem to bar the formerly incarcerated from holding public office.
The statute is one of hundreds in place across the country that deny basic rights to the formerly incarcerated — sometimes forever. While the Texas statute appears to offer a way for Conway to run, it isn’t clear what path he must take to get there. He is determined to figure it out and, in turn, clear the way for others like him.
The East Austin complex where Conway killed a man looks much the same as it did nearly 27 years ago on a hot and humid summer day.
The two-story buildings have clearly had a paint job or two and there are several new fences, he noted on a recent visit. The swimming pool that used to be at the center of a modest courtyard has been filled in. Now several smallish trees grow there. What happened that day in 1991, he said walking toward his old apartment, was the result of fear.
Conway, now 48, grew up in Austin and was a nerdy kid known for his Led Zeppelin jacket, dashikis, and combat boots. He was a good student and spent his weekends working in the office of a housing complex his father managed, where he would help with the accounting and other paperwork. He liked the accounting. He stayed in the city for college, which is where he began selling pot. It was a relatively easy decision: His classmates were mainly from the North and were used to paying a lot for weed; the drug was cheap in Austin and he had a decent hookup, so the profit margin was good and could help pay for his tuition. It was his fellow classmates who introduced him to crack; he wasn’t interested in smoking it, but when he saw how much profit he could take in by selling it, he made a fateful decision.
He hooked up with a dealer and took the drug on consignment. From Building 5, Apartment 207, he dealt through a crew that sold the rocks to users. Around 2 a.m. on August 4, 1991, he was pulled from bed by pounding on his front door. Outside was a guy he remembered from middle school. They hadn’t been friends, and the guy was a bully. Now he was an addict. Conway tried to shut the door in his face, but the guy put his foot in the way. When Conway briefly looked away, the man pushed past him, stole his stash and cash, and fled.
Conway realized that if he didn’t get the money and drugs back, he was going to be in big trouble. He was scared. He spent hours that Sunday looking for the guy before realizing that he would probably pop back up at the complex in an apartment where smokers were known to congregate. When a neighbor alerted him that the guy was there, Conway left his apartment, grabbing an old pocket knife from an end table on his way out. “It was an afterthought,” he told The Intercept. “I just grabbed it.” Downstairs and around the corner in another apartment, he confronted the man and asked for his cash. The guy balked and reached for a gun. Conway lunged once and then recoiled, the knife still in his hand. “He looked at me and he said, ‘Man, I thought you stabbed me.’ I said, ‘I thought I stabbed you too,’” he recalls. “And then I saw blood coming out of his chest, just like a spigot. My knees turned to jelly.”
Conway called the cops and waited. When they arrived, he took them to the scene of the crime. He admitted what he’d done and was arrested. He eventually accepted a plea deal: 20 years for voluntary manslaughter. Conway spent eight years in prison and 12 on parole. He successfully completed his sentence in 2013.
Conway remembers that it wasn’t until his mugshot was being taken that he began to understand the gravity of his actions. “It’s a photo of a 21-year-old who realizes his life has just been flushed down the drain. I was a scared kid over his head, playing a game,” he said. “I had no idea what the rules were.”
He is forthright about what he did; it happened and he served his time. But he is also determined that it should not define his future. And he thinks that should be the case for the millions of others like him, people whose lives have also been engulfed by the criminal justice system and often for far less serious crimes.
According to Bill Cobb, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, an estimated 100 million people across the country have been arrested or convicted of a crime and face a number of forms of disenfranchisement as a result. The collateral consequences of arrest and conviction can be crippling: Access to housing, education, and employment are often impeded; basic rights can be denied — sometimes indefinitely.
Conway has had his share of struggles, but he’s found his way past them, in part through activism and civic engagement. What he’s learned since 1991 ultimately brought him before a microphone and a group of supporters on December 4, 2017 to announce his run for city council. “Today, we lay hold to the pebbles of divisiveness; the stones of despair and poverty; the bundles of racism and brutality,” he said. “We take hold of those stones together. We lay the foundation for these streets of hope, these streets of change, together with your help.”
But whether he’ll be allowed to do so remains unclear.
Eight days after Conway announced his candidacy, Jannette Goodall, the city clerk, penned a memo to the mayor and 10 councilmembers. The subject line was “Candidacy eligibility.” Goodall wrote that they “may have heard or read” about Conway’s potential candidacy. She noted that Conway is a “convicted felon,” but that he has had his voting rights restored and thus, “asserts” that he is eligible to run for public office. After consulting with the city’s legal department, she wrote, she isn’t sure that’s the case.
At issue is a section of the Texas Election Code enacted in 1985. To be eligible to run for office, a person must not have been “finally convicted” of a felony from which they have not been “pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities.”
But Ricco Garcia, a lawyer who has taken on Conway’s case pro bono, says he doesn’t know what qualifies as a “disability” that needs curing. “The statute is extremely vague” on that front, he says. Certainly, there are many disabilities that result from a conviction — the loss of voting rights, for example, the ability to hold certain professional licenses, or own a firearm. Garcia says he isn’t sure which of these rights needs restoring in order to clear Conway to run.
Texas, like nearly every other state, imposes some loss of rights upon a person who has been convicted of a felony. The pathway to restoration depends on where you live. In some states, basic rights — voting, serving on a jury, holding public office — are automatically restored after the sentence is served. In others, some rights are automatically restored, while other rights require some further judicial or executive action. In a number of states, rights are restored only by official pardon. And in a small number of states, one or more of these rights is permanently lost. In short, the path to restoration varies “widely from state to state, making something of a national crazy-quilt of disqualifications and restoration procedures,” reads a report from the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney.
Perhaps unsurprising is that nearly every southern state imposes some hurdle to the restoration of basic rights, including some of the most onerous. In both Alabama and Florida, for example, basic rights can only be restored by gubernatorial pardon — but whether that is even a feasible route largely depends on the whims of whoever is in office. While he was governor of Florida, Charlie Crist restored the voting rights of more than 100,000 formerly incarcerated individuals. Currently, nearly 1.5 million Floridians, including 1 of every 5 black residents — the greatest number in any state — are barred from voting. Under the leadership of Gov. Rick Scott that seems unlikely to change. (Activists are pushing for an initiative to appear on the state’s November ballot that would restore voting rights for a majority of former felons.)
Compounding the problem is the fact that many state statutes are confusing, as is the case in Texas. There are cases in which state agencies appear to disagree about how the various laws governing restorations of rights “should be interpreted and applied,” reads the federal report. “More importantly, the uncertain state of the law in various jurisdictions raises questions about a convicted felon’s ability to determine his legal rights and responsibilities, which obviously can have serious consequences for affected individuals.”
That is precisely the problem Conway faces. Garcia, his lawyer, says his research suggests the two disabilities Conway needs restored in order to run are the right to vote and the right to sit on a jury. Under Texas law, voting rights are restored once a sentence is completed; Conway completed his sentence in 2013 and is free to vote. The more difficult question is whether he needs to be eligible to sit on a jury and if so, how to go about securing that right. “So are those the disabilities? And how do you get them back?” Garcia asks. “I don’t know.”
As in Alabama, Florida, and a number of other states, in Texas the rights of the formerly incarcerated can be restored by gubernatorial pardon, but because it is also a state where pardons are scarce, that is hardly a viable option. The statute in question indicates that in lieu of a pardon, a person can be “otherwise released” from restriction, but it doesn’t explain what that means.
The Texas secretary of state’s office isn’t sure either. “There’s nowhere either in existing case law or any statues in the Texas Election Code that say exactly what ‘released from the resulting disabilities’ means,” or how that is supposed to happen, says Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the office. He notes that Texas law allows a person convicted of a felony to run for office, but only when the conviction isn’t “final.” “That has happened multiple times before,” he said.
In other words, if Conway had been convicted and was appealing his sentence, he would be clear to run for office, but because he was convicted, served out his sentence, and is now free, he might be barred from doing so.
Conway considers this situation both frustrating and ironic.
After he was paroled from prison, he had a tough time finding a job. His conviction turned off several employers, even when his skillset was otherwise perfect for the job. Ultimately, he worked a number of jobs — at a Walmart and at a couple of local hospitals, as a music video director for local acts, and as a DJ — before a health scare in 2015 changed his focus: He would use his story to effect change. Since then, he’s written self-help books, gotten involved in prison ministry, and, ultimately, into advocacy. He joined the Reentry Advocacy Project and the Second Chance Democrats of Austin, groups led by the formerly incarcerated, and was ultimately hired as a criminal justice organizer for Grassroots Leadership, which, among other things, fights against mass incarceration and prison privatization.
And he began working Austin’s City Hall in the effort to pass a Fair Chance Hiring ordinance that would bar private employers from asking about criminal history until later in the hiring process. In 2016, the efforts of Conway and others paid off, making Austin the first southern city to pass such a regulation. In 2017, he and others moved their focus to the state capitol, where a conservative member of the city’s state house delegation penned a bill that would bar municipalities from enacting such regulations — a move meant specifically to topple Austin’s employment ordinance. Their lobbying worked and the bill died.
The policy victories galvanized Conway’s determination to run for public office. But whereas inquiring about his criminal history would now be barred if he were seeking private employment in the city, the ordinance does not apply to his bid to seek public office there. Frankly, says the ACLU’s Cobb, “It’s something that doesn’t make sense” and serves to further marginalize a significant percentage of the population. “What Lewis is doing, and what other people are doing who have been in contact with the criminal justice system are doing, is creating an energy that is needed: People need to see what is possible after incarceration.”
That idea is among those guiding Conway’s campaign, which he says is based on the principles that animate the leadership of Chokwe Lumumba, mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, who has declared making Jackson the “most radical city on the planet” as his goal.
For now, however, Conway has to build not only a campaign, but also a legal case. “We feel like the burden that our campaign is carrying is, of course, unfair, [and] it’s definitely one that other candidates are not going to have to deal with,” he said. “Should we bear the burden of our past when our present has been involved in fixing the future?”
Cobb says Conway’s quest is crucial. “We want people with arrests and convictions to engage in the democratic process,” he said. “Lewis has dedicated his life not only to serving his community, but specifically to leveraging his leadership in a way that provides hope to people who have been where he’s been, who have served time in our nation’s jails and prisons. We need not less of Lewis Conway, but we need a lot more Lewis Conways.”