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Progress Made in Fight Against Prison Gerrymandering But Battle Continues

But what is prison gerrymandering? A definitive example is Crowley County, Colorado. About 6,000 people live in the county’s four small towns, with a population that is 47% Latino, Black, and Indigenous — considerably different than the state as a whole. (88% White, according to The World Almanac and Book of Facts.)

The reason for this anomaly is that almost half (45% or 2,700 people) of the county’s population resides at one of the three prisons within the county. The prisoner population grants the “free public” political power they would otherwise not have.

Due to the U.S. Census Bureau’s rule that people are to be counted at their “usual place of abode” which is defined as the place where they “live and sleep most of the time,” prisoners are counted among the populations where they are imprisoned. And since many prisons were built in rural, predominantly White communities (aka conservative/Republican), this shifts representative power away from urban/inner-city (predominantly minority/Democrat) communities and inflates the power of the rural communities.

The federal constitution and those of most states proportion the number of elected representatives from an area based upon the population of that area. Thus, prisoners potentially increase the number of representatives for a given area while at the same time the prisoners have no say in electing those representatives due to disenfranchisement laws.

Additionally, taxpayer funds are often allocated based on population, yet prisoners generally do not use roads and highways near the prison; own or patronize businesses where the prisons are located; attend public schools; vote in local or national elections, etc. Additionally, special funding targeting minority-owned business communities; minority schools; medical facilities and so on is often based on the minority population. By counting people at the prison instead of where they lived prior to incarceration, their home communities are robbed of these funds.

Before 1990, the prison population wasn’t large enough to have a noticeable effect upon these issues. But by 2001, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) discovered that the sheer size of the growing prison population (now over 2 million) was seriously distorting how political decisions were being made. Through the efforts of PPI and others, nine states have passed legislation requiring incarcerated people be counted at home for redistricting purposes; the Census Bureau publishes prison count data early in order to assist states in removing incarcerated people from the count during the redistricting process; and a guide to assist state legislators in ending prison gerrymandering has been released.

But more must be done. One important, and plausible, change would be directing the Census Bureau to count prisoners among the population where they lived prior to incarceration. The Census Bureau has counted deployed military personnel in their home states. Students living on campus have likewise been counted as residents of their home states. The same could, and should, be done concerning prisoners. 


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