Peter Wagner, Executive Director
I need your help. For more than a decade, the Prison Policy Initiative has been at the forefront of the movement to expose how mass incarceration undermines our national welfare. With a lot of hard work and generous support from a small network of individual donors, we've won major civil rights victories in local governments, state legislatures and even the Supreme Court. But our long-term viability depends on people like you investing in our work.

Can you stand up for smart and effective justice policy by joining our small network of donors today? You can make a one-time gift, or even become one of our sustaining monthly donors.

Through the end of 2014, your contribution to our work will stretch twice as far thanks to a match commitment from a small group of other donors like you.

I thank you for your investment in our work towards a more just tomorrow.
—Peter
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by Sue Gershon, November 30, 2010

Most California counties that contain large prisons take a sensible approach to creating their county supervisor districts. These counties omit the prison populations from their calculations when drawing supervisor districts. One reason why the counties don’t have a prison-based gerrymandering problem might be the advice that the California Attorney General’s office gave them during the 1990 redistricting process.

In that opinion letter, the state Attorney General’s office assured counties that they are free to exclude prisoners from the total population for purposes of redistricting, and that such a policy “embodies a legitimate state interest of maintaining voting strength among voters of the various districts.”

The opinion does an excellent job of laying out many of the reasons why it is not only permissible, but preferable, for county governments to exclude incarcerated populations when creating electoral districts:

[I]nclusion of [state prisoners and those in juvenile custody facilities] might well create an imbalance in voting strength and a dilution of voting power among district voters. For example, if a district has 20,000 in population of which 5,000 are state prisoners, the non-prisoner population in that district will have greater voting power in selecting a supervisor, as well as greater access to that supervisor, than the non-prisoner populations in the other four districts. A vote in the district containing the state prison will necessarily count more; in comparison, the voting power of persons in the other districts will be diluted.

The opinion hits on a crucial point when it notes that “[c]laims of minority vote dilution [caused by including prisons for districting purposes] will be especially significant if the prisoner and ward populations are not reflective of the racial and language minority populations of the county as a whole.” As has been well documented, this is in fact the situation in many counties which house significant prison populations.

Continue reading →


by Aleks Kajstura, November 29, 2010

The New Haven Register recently published “New Haven legislator eyes inmate residency” by Angela Carter.

The story provides a great introduction to the prison-based gerrymandering problems facing Connecticut. Although the Connecticut legislature failed to pass reforms last session, there is renewed hope for ending prison-based gerrymandering in Connecticut next year:

With the initial backing of Connecticut Common Cause and the Prison Policy Initiative, state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, says he will introduce a bill in the 2011 legislative session that would change how residency of state prisoners is determined.

For more information about prison-based gerrymandering in Connecticut see our continually updated page on the current campaign for change in Connecticut.


by Aleks Kajstura, November 19, 2010

Last week the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) launched its public education program “Redrawing the Lines.”

The newly-unveiled website features user-friendly content that providing an overview of the redistricting process. The site has a Redistricting 101 guide that includes a page on the impact of prison populations on redistricting. Efforts to end prison-based gerrymandering are also highlighted among other reform efforts.

Although rarely discussed in the context of redistricting, both the census miscount of prisoners and felon disfranchisement laws have a significant impact on minority communities. While much of the redistricting reform debate has focused on partisanship and IRCs, these proposals have failed to address two very significant problems faced by minority communities during the redistricting process.

The Redrawing the Lines program promotes the importance of participating in the redistricting process, the site provides a good general summary of the ways in which the districting process is manipulated and encourages everyone to get involved.


by Peter Wagner, November 18, 2010

Last night I spoke on a panel with director Jeff Reichert at a screening of the Gerrymandering at Yale Law School Room 129 in New Haven CT. The event was organized by Common Cause Connecticut, American Constitution Society and Yale Law School Democrats. Many of the key advocates for ending prison-based gerrymandering were there, including Common Cause Connecticut Executive Director Cheri Quickmire, State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield, and former state Representative Bill Dyson.

Turnout was great, and the discussion was excellent. Screenings like these are key to raising awareness and building more momentum for reform. But what’s missing? You.

We need to organize more screenings of the film. The next one that I’ll be attending is not until Dec. 9 in Marblehead Mass. If you can’t make it to Massachusetts, contact us or director Jeff Reichert about scheduling a screening near you.

Check out the trailer:

or my little part in the film:


by Peter Wagner, November 12, 2010

Pam Adams has an excellent column in the Journal Star in Peoria Illinois: Are legislative maps hurting prison reforms?

She explains that gerrymandering districts around prisons helps makes reforming the budget-busting prison system more difficult. But unlike New York, Illinois’ districts with large prisons are evenly distributed between Republicans and Democrats. The bi-partisan support for retaining prison-based gerrymandering doesn’t make ending the practice any easier, but if Illinois wants to fair districts to guide the state for the next decade, reform is needed:

“The state has about 50,000 men and women in prison. Though most of the state’s prisons are downstate, most of the state’s prison inmates are from the Chicago area. Most of them will return to the Chicago area in less than two years. Counting prison inmates where they’re confined rather than where they live means Chicago basically exports political power to prison-padded districts downstate.

“We ought to be a bit more grateful to Chicago down here. Especially with a round of legislative redistricting on the horizon and downstate potentially in line to lose yet another Illinois House seat because population hasn’t kept up with the competition.

“Except it’s not fair. Not to the prison inmates who can’t vote. Not to voters in districts that don’t have prisons. Not to basic democratic principles.

“And it definitely doesn’t provide much political incentive to pass reforms that would reduce the more than $1 billion annually the state spends on prisons.”

Read the entire column: Are legislative maps hurting prison reforms?

See also our Organizing Against Prison-Based Gerrymandering in Illinois page for more research, fact sheets and news coverage. Or see Pam Adams earlier column about prison-based gerrymandering: Where should prisoners be counted?.


by Aleks Kajstura, November 8, 2010

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund created an interactive map highlighting key voting rights issues across the United States. Prison-based gerrymandering was included among Voting Rights Act violations, voter purging, access to polling places, and other issues standing in the face of fair elections.

Examples of prison-based gerrymandering include:

Texas:

Both Harris and Dallas counties, the largest counties in Texas, lose the most people when prisoners are counted in prison districts rather than their actual residences. Harris County, for instance, makes up 16.3 percent of the state’s population, but supplies 21.5 percent of the state’s prisoners, losing about 25,000 people in its Census count.

Idaho:

Native American and Latino communities are overrepresented in the Idaho prison system, yet they are counted in the Census as residents of their prison rather than their home communities. These disfranchised prisoners lend political power to prison towns even though they are not deemed constituents of the representatives who serve these areas.

Oklahoma:

Seven of Oklahoma’s House districts meet the federal minimal population requirements because incarcerated citizens are counted as residents of the district in which their prison is located.

In addition to prison-based gerrymandering problems in other states, the LDF also highlights work already done in Delaware, Maryland, and New York:

Progress: In September 2010, the governor of Delaware signed House Bill 284, which requires that prison inmates be counted at their place of residence prior to incarceration, marking an important step in the effort to end the long practice of prison-based gerrymandering.

Progress: This year, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law the No Representation Without Population Act. This Act will help ensure that individuals who are in prison are counted in their home districts rather than the districts where they are currently incarcerated during redistricting.

Progress: LDF congratulates the New York State Senate and Governor Patterson for ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York. This courageous decision will bring New York’s redistricting process in line with basic principles of democracy, and will serve as a model for other states in the effort to count incarcerated populations correctly in the next round of redistricting.