Prison gerrymandering and (mis)representation: More evidence of systemic racism that needs to be dismantled
Editor’s note: CHN Intern Abby Huebler is a senior at the University of Delaware, where she is double-majoring in Economics and Environmental Studies, and minoring in Geography.
Calls for racial justice are spreading across the country and the world. COVID-19 has brought disproportionate death to Black Americans. Primary election calamities across the U.S. are making it more difficult for low-income and minority neighborhoods to vote. Meanwhile, 2020 Census data collection that will determine redistricting in 2021 is underway.
We can add prison gerrymandering to the list of things that have been included in recent Black Lives Matter protests and that allow us to question the integrity of the representation of BIPOC (Black and Indigenous people of color) and low-income communities in the United States.
Prison-based gerrymandering, a policy that began with the first U.S. census in 1790, allows prisoners to be counted as residents in the district where they are incarcerated instead of where they resided pre-incarceration, and presumably where they will reside after their release.
This allows for inflated political power in often predominantly white, rural areas, and on the flip side, less representation in often urban, low-income, and predominantly minority districts. Meanwhile, prisoners are unable to vote in 48 states and therefore cannot hold a representative accountable for any of their actions. “It’s almost like your body is being used,” Robert Alexander, who is in prison at the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin, told NPR in 2019.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 60 percent of prisoners in Illinois are from Chicago (Cook County), but 99 percent of them are counted outside Cook County. In Wisconsin’s 53rd district, just 590 of the 2,784 African-Americans counted as residents in the district are not incarcerated. Prison-based gerrymandering allows the use of disproportionately incarcerated Black and Latinx “residents” as padding for the representation of predominately white, rural populations. Alderperson Ryan Mielke, a representative in Waupun, Wisconsin told NPR, “There’s no reason to communicate on property I don’t have access to,” when asked about his communication with the prisoners that he represents.
What does this mean considering current census data collection and a 2020 election occurring against a backdrop of nationwide protests for anti-racism and justice for Black Americans? In 2010, just two states, Maryland and New York, counted incarcerated people at their home address for purposes of redistricting. Since then, an additional seven states have implemented policies that will apply to the 2020 Census cycle. The U.S. Census Bureau also has agreed to publish prison count data earlier than in previous years to make it easier for states to locate last known addresses of prisoners (although it is not known whether this will happen in light of delays caused by COVID-19). Some local governments have established practices to avoid distortion created by prison gerrymandering as well.
The New York Times reported data from Civiqs that shows public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has increased in the last two weeks as much as it has in the last two years. Pushes for increased investment in vulnerable communities, decreases in policing, and the amplification of Black voices will continue to echo through this election cycle. With race relations at the forefront of voters’ minds, we may begin to see more widespread policies that protect against prison-based gerrymandering implemented before the 2030 Census. For the next 10 years, however, it seems that representation will continue to be distorted by the many states that allow this practice to continue.