Prison Gerrymandering and the Census

By Alicia Dorsey

From PHN Issue 43, Summer 2020

There is a national call to end prison gerrymandering—to end the manipulating of our votes and federal resources. Prison gerrymandering was started by the Republican party and their erroneous “tough on crime” propaganda. Prison gerrymandering manipulates our votes by building prisons, jails, and youth residential placement in areas of small populations, to inflate the area’s population for the census count every 10 years.

The census count began in 1790 to count our population. In 1902, the United States Census Bureau was formed under the Commerce Department to produce data about us and our economy. The census uses the collected data to create political representation and federal funding allocations based on counting people at their place of residence the day of the census count. This federal funding includes monies
for public health and other social services that many of our brothers and sisters behind bars are denied. The incarcerated community are only considered residents of the voting district where their prison is located on the day of the census count. Our brothers and sisters behind bars, in most states, are not permitted to vote in the district that used them for population count. They are not permitted to use the
schools, playgrounds, or hospitals (unless on their dying beds), allocated in their names by the census count. And the neighborhoods or cities where our brothers and sisters behind bars come from are not granted the federal funding that they would have received if people were not in prison elsewhere.

Prison-based gerrymandering makes the disenfranchisement of incarcerated people worse. For example, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and The Sentencing Project released a report in 2016, finding that, “In the city of Anamosa, Iowa, a councilman from a prison community was elected to office from a ward which, per the census, had almost 1,400 residents—about the same as the other three wards in town. But 1,300 of these ‘residents’ were prisoners in the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Once those prisoners were subtracted, the ward had fewer than 60 actual residents.”

Sherri Davis, a fellow at Common Cause, describes it as “A form of gerrymandering that unfairly skews political representation and federal monies towards the rural, whiter communities where prisons are often built. While some states are taking steps to end prison gerrymandering altogether, some are doing absolutely nothing. With Census Bureau data being used today for redistricting at all levels of government, prison populations are the key to who wins in many elections [emphasis added].”

Prison gerrymandering is on the radar of political candidates. Please contact them and ask your family and support circle to contact their elected officials to let them know how you feel about ending prison gerrymandering. When has an elected official talked to you about life in prison? Please address the distance from home, the manipulation of federal resources and votes, on our incarcerated population aka the coming up off of our vulnerable backs.

What happened to one person, one vote?

Water may be the only census allocation the incarcerated have access to. Is the water drinkable for the incarcerated, or are they drinking fracked waste? Is there housing in the prison district that the incarcerated can go home to? The argument of jobs will try to take precedence. Ask them to look in the mirror and question what kind of society are we to cage people in need of support, in inhumane living conditions? Manipulation of our resources and votes in all forms of gerrymandering can end if we believe in democracy of the people for the people.

Activists are currently organizing in the following states to demand change: Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. As a prison abolitionist, I advocate with Fair Districts PA. We have several bills to form a redistricting citizens commission pending passage in our state legislature. The redistricting
citizen commission would aim to be nonpartisan and create fair representation for one person, one vote. We have Fair Districts chapters nationwide. Fair Districts PA volunteer Sara Stroman shared that states can apply for the Census Optional Data Product to protect redistricting and the federal resource allocations of incarcerated people. The Census Optional Data Product is important because
many of our sisters and brothers behind bars will not be behind bars for 10 years and will need resources and support when returning home. States can reallocate the federal allocations to the home communities of our brothers and sisters with the Census Optional Data Product. To find out the addresses of elected officials so you can write letters in support of this campaign, you can write to Prison Policy Initiative, P.O. Box 127, Northampton, Massachusetts 01061.

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