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Rhode Island Joins the Movement to End Prison Gerrymandering

by Jo Ellen Nott

In February 2022, Rhode Island joined twelve other states that have addressed “prison gerrymandering,” the practice which counts people in prison as residents of the cell in which they are detained instead of the place where they live.

In a 2017 paper, the Center for Administrative Records Research and Applications (CARRA) of the U.S. Census Bureau found that a “disproportionate share of prisons and inmates are in rural areas, while a disproportionate share of inmates is from urban areas. Our research could inform discussions about the potential consequences of Census Bureau residence criteria for inmates.”

The more than thirty states that have not addressed gerrymandering are using the Census counts to effectively enhance the representation of people living in districts where prisons are located, consequently subtracting population and representation from urban areas and inaccurately assigning it to rural areas.

Prisons across the nation are full of individuals not from the area where the prison is located. These prisoners relate strongly to and identify with their home community and in almost all cases return to that home community.

Ending prison gerrymandering will also have an impact on communities of color across the nation since Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white Americans. Members of the Latinx community are incarcerated at a rate that is 1.3 times that of white Americans.  

The latest move was made in mid-February 2022 by Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee (D), who changed how the state counts incarcerated people by changing the old legislative and congressional districts to more accurately reflect where prisoners permanently reside, not where they are temporarily assigned to a cell.

Rhode Island follows Pennsylvania in addressing prison gerrymandering in its redistricting commission. Adding to those two the other eleven other states that have also ended the practice through legislation, roughly half of all U.S. residents now live in a state, county, or municipality that has rejected prison gerrymandering, according to Prison Policy Initiative.

Rhode Island’s move to address prison gerrymandering was not a complete one. The redistricting commission only counted people who on April 1, 2020, were either not yet sentenced or had less than two years remaining on their sentences, instead of counting all individuals in prisons on that day. As a result, the state’s new legislative maps count only 44 percent of incarcerated people in their home districts, and the change will not affect federal or state funding.

Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, urged Rhode Island lawmakers to end the injustice by passing laws that will count all incarcerated people in their home districts when new districts are formed again in ten years.

Sources: Prison Policy Initiative, U.S. Census Bureau, The Sentencing Project

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