Why Prison Gerrymandering Must End

The Unfair Districting Process that Silences Urban Communities of Color

Photo: Steve Bousquet, Tampa Bay Times

by AMELIA GALBRAITH                                                                                                   Guest Columnist

A person is forcibly removed from their community, confined in inhumane conditions, and stripped of their civic right to vote. You might ask: who benefits from this practice? To no surprise, white, conservative, rural American voters is who.

On November 6th 2018,  Florida voted in support of Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to over 1 million formerly incarcerated citizens. This progressive consensus indicates the increasing openness to criminal justice reform nationwide and has sparked discourse about the imperative overhaul of the current oppressive prison system.

The majority of the nation’s prisons are located in rural areas predominantly populated by conservative white residents. This population is juxtaposed by the slew of urban residents (predominantly African American and Hispanic citizens) that are incarcerated and confined in these communities at soaring rates. Not only are these people displaced from the urban environments they call home, but their home districts are also stripped of electoral power and proportionate representation due to a process known as “prison gerrymandering.”

Prison gerrymandering is a crucial determinant of whose voices are heard in the American electoral system. In essence, this process inflates the votes of white residents living in districts containing prisons and dilutes the electoral power of the urban communities that incarcerated people predominantly come from. The United States census currently deems prisoners in prison districts as constituents, even though they are prohibited from voting in all but two states, essentially granting these districts “representation without population.” The current discriminatory census procedure is in desperate need of reform in order to equitably balance electoral representation nationwide.  

Following the 2020 census, California and Delaware will join New York and Maryland in initiating redistricting reforms to include prisoners as constituents of their home districts—rather than their places of confinement. Former California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 420 in 2011 which “would request the Citizens Redistricting Commission to deem each incarcerated person as residing at his or her last known place of residence, rather than at the institution of his or her incarceration, and to utilize the above information in carrying out its redistricting responsibilities.” This amendment to the census procedure is going to equalize electoral power in all districts of California, mitigating the likelihood of districts being distorted because of “phantom populations.” All states should follow in California’s footsteps to curb the inherent racial and urban prejudice that stems from this loophole; no citizen should have a greater voice than another solely based on their geographic location.

Former CA Governor Jerry Brown. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Washington Post

New York and Maryland trailblazed districting reform after the 2010 census. Different agencies and advocacy groups effectively collaborated across disciplines to successfully implement the goals of this reform in both states. As a result, every legislative and local district in New York and Maryland has been alleviated from the prejudiced injustices of prison gerrymandering, reinforcing the one person-one vote policy.

The image below exemplifies the change in rural populations as deemed by the census before and following the redistricting initiative in New York. The corrected population did not change drastically, but as we have seen in past elections, every vote counts, and therefore, every vote should be equally weighted.

Source: Peter Wagner, Prison Policy Initiative

About 8 in 10 inmates from Philadelphia are incarcerated over 100 miles away from the city in rural Pennsylvania towns, removing them from their home districts and communities. Currently, organizations like Fair Districts Pennsylvania are working to amend the unfair practices of gerrymandering as a whole to ensure that all Pennsylvania voters are granted equal voting power, including addressing rural and urban districting disparities.

However, the political advantage that this process renders for conservative politicians impedes the path to reform. The conservative white working class population of the country benefits immensely from the prison system and mass incarceration; not only are they gifted greater electoral representation through gerrymandering, they benefit from the job opportunities that prisons in their districts create. Unsurprisingly, conservative politicians are in no rush to amend these calculated effects and it is no shock that the few states that are pursuing reform are blue. Yet, this issue should not be one drowned in partisan politics.

If America is truly the democracy that we pride ourselves in being, no citizen’s voice should be overshadowed or diluted. It is contradictory that the United States, a global pinnacle of democracy, intentionally strives to disenfranchise and diminish the political power of its own citizens through processes like prison gerrymandering. Moreover, this procedure calls into question whether the country favors certain citizens and communities over others. Reforming the census to eradicate prison gerrymandering is a necessary and productive first step in the vital dismantlement of the unjust American criminal justice system.

As seen in Florida this past November, the tide is changing on issues related to criminal justice. This progress would not be a reality today if it weren’t for the tireless hours that citizens contributed to the grassroots movement behind Florida’s “Voting Restoration Act.” We as the public need to ride this wave and demand reforms in the criminal justice system, advocating on behalf of those who are currently suppressed by the prison system and unable to express their own struggles for themselves, in order to ensure an equitable criminal justice system and democracy.

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