This paper examines the role that public exposure to the conditions experienced by suffragist prisoners played in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Using the experience of the suffragists as an example of how prisoner protest impacted democratic debate, the paper argues that robust protection of prisoners’ First Amendment rights is fundamental to the nation’s democratic values and political discourse and debate.

The paper begins with an historical overview of the arrests, convictions, and incarceration of the Silent Sentinels, women who began picketing outside the White House in 1917. Over the course of several months, local officials in the District of Columbia arrested and sent over 200 suffragists to the notorious Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. Serving sentences as long as seven months, the women prisoners faced squalid and horrid conditions in the jail. In response to these conditions and the political nature of their incarceration, the women continued their protests from inside the prison walls by organizing petitions and engaging in hunger strikes. While historians have been ambivalent about the role these in-prison protests ultimately played in securing passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the widespread publicity and press coverage of the prisoners’ force-feeding, harsh conditions, and rough treatment cannot be denied.

Using the above historical narrative as a backdrop, the paper then goes on to argue for more robust constitutional protections for prisoners’ First Amendment rights than current jurisprudence allows. While prison walls ostensibly form no barrier between prisoners and the Constitution, current First Amendment doctrine in the prison context severely chills prisoners’ ability and willingness to engage in the type of protests utilized by the incarcerated suffragists. The Silent Sentinels’ example provides context to the notion that hearing from those impacted the most on political issues is of critical import to the political process. Thus, it is important to ensure the voices of those most impacted by criminal justice reform—a hot-topic of modern political debates—are heard. Ensuring that these unpopular and suppressed voices are heard reinforces the fundamental values meant to be protected by the rights enumerated in the First Amendment—most importantly, the checking value of those rights as a protection against tyranny and abuse of government power, the inclusion of all voices in the marketplaces of ideas, and recognition of the identity and autonomy of every person, including the most marginalized.