A portrait of Peter Wagner.
Peter Wagner
Executive Director
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—Peter Wagner
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Closed prison can mean long-term harm to democracy in Oklahoma County

by Peter Wagner, June 1, 2010  

The Associated Press is reporting that:

WATONGA, Okla. — This Blaine County city wants its criminals back.

Not back on the streets, but back in the private prison that until Thursday was Watonga’s biggest employer.

Now it’s empty.

For budgetary reasons, the state of Arizona recently decided not to renew the contract that placed 2,000 prisoners in the Oklahoma facility. The private company is looking for a new client, but for now, the 300 people who worked at the facility must transfer to other prisons or be out a job.

That effort has the mayor’s attention, but another problem is just below the surface: the prison count. The prison may be gone, but unless the county takes action soon, the closed prison is poised to harm democracy in the county for a decade to come.

If Blaine County includes the closed prison when it updates its County Commissioner districts, half of one district will be incarcerated people who have long since left the county. The 2,000 people who live closest to the prison will have the same amount of influence as 4,000 people in other districts.

In our report issued last fall, we identified Blaine County as the Oklahoma County with the second largest-prison based gerrymandering problem in the state. It surely wasn’t intentional, but the county created a dramatic problem for equal representation in the county by using prison counts to draw legislative districts. In contrast, we praised out Greer County for rejecting the Census Bureau’s prison count and drawing districts based on the actual number of people in the county.

Our report was based on the current districts drawn after the 2000 Census, but the prison was larger when the 2010 Census was taken in April of this year. Unless the County takes action, and adjusts the Census Bureau data to remove the prison populations prior to districting, the county is likely to have the most significantly distorted county commission districts in the state.

Given that the prison is now closed, that prison-based gerrymandering will make even less sense than usual.

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