I need your help. Prison gerrymandering gives extra political power to legislators who have prisons in their districts. We put numbers on the problem and sparked a movement to protect our democratic process from the overgrown prison system.

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Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

Fixing prison-based gerrymandering after the 2010 Census: Tennessee

50 State Guide, March 2010

Prison-based gerrymandering violates the constitutional principle of “One Person, One Vote.” The Supreme Court requires districts to be based on equal population in order to give each resident the same access to government. But a longstanding flaw in the Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, even though they can’t vote and aren’t a part of the surrounding community.

When legislators claim people incarcerated in their districts are legitimate constituents, they award people who live close to the prison more of a say in government than everybody else.

Impact at the local level:

  • In Lake County, 88% of the population in County Commissioner District 1, drawn after the 2000 Census, was not local residents but prisoners counted at the Northwest Correctional Complex. This gave every group of 3 residents in District 1 as much say over county affairs as 25 residents in other districts. As described in Table 1 below, reliance on the Census Bureau’s flawed prison count to draw districts creates series problems for democracy in ten Tennessee Counties.
  • The full list:
    Table 1. Vote dilution caused by relying on the prisoner miscount to draw Tennessee County Commissioner districts after the 2000 Census.
    County Most distorted district Prison in district Prison population Vote enhancement
    Bledsoe District 1 Southeastern Tennessee State Regional Correctional Facility 969 34.7%
    Davidson District 20 Middle Tennessee Correctional Complex (now called the Charles Bass Correctional Complex), Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, and Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility 2,569 15.4%
    Hardeman District 3 Whiteville Correctional Facility- CCA and Hardeman County Correctional Center 3,377 58.7%
    Hickman District 1 Turney Center Industrial Prison and Farm 1,106 33.4%
    Johnson District 5 Northeastern Correctional Complex 1,299 38.3%
    Lake District 1 Northwest Correctional Complex[i] 1,799 87.6%
    Lauderdale District 5 Western Tennessee State Penitentiary 2,346 69.3%
    Morgan n/a[ii] Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex 1,536 47.0%
    Tipton District 7 Tipton County Western Tennessee Detention Facility 527 9.5%
    Wayne District 2 South Central Correctional Facility and Wayne County Boot Camp 1,894 78.9%

Tennessee law says a prison cell is not a residence:

  • Tennessee’s statutes are explicit: “A person does not gain or lose residence solely by reason of the person’s presence or absence… while confined in a public prison.” (Tennessee Annotated Code 2-2-122(a)(7)).

Other solutions:

  • Ideally, the U.S. Census Bureau would change where it counts incarcerated people. They should be counted as residents of their home — not prison — addresses. There is no time for that in 2010, but Tennessee should ask the Census Bureau for this change for 2020.
  • For 2010, the state and its local governments should, to the degree possible, count incarcerated people as residents of their home communities for redistricting purposes. Where that is not feasible, incarcerated people should be treated as providing unknown addresses instead of being used to pad the legislative districts that contain prisons.

Additional resources:

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