Attica’s lessons and the urgency of ending prison-based gerrymandering
by Peter Wagner and Rose Heyer, September 13, 2011
Forty years ago, thousands of people confined at the Attica prison in rural New York State rebelled, taking control of D-yard. The media was invited in to see the conditions and observe negotiations, so the whole world was watching when, forty years ago today, Governor Rockefeller ordered an assault on the prison, turning what was then the largest prison rebellion into the bloodiest. Forty-three people died, almost all from state police gunfire.
The rebellion and the investigation into its causes caused a fundamental reexamination of correctional policy throughout America, but the difficulties the state had in reforming Attica itself offers a powerful lens on the central role of geography and race in criminal justice policy.
Forty years ago, 63% of the people incarcerated at Attica were Black or Latino, but at that time there were no Blacks and only one Latino serving as guards. The prison population was 70% urban, mostly from New York City, but 80% of the guards were from rural New York.
The racial disparity between the keepers and the kept increased tensions at Attica, and gave Black and Latino prisoners a painful daily reminder that justice isn’t colorblind.
Many of the rebellion’s demands were common sense improvements to food, mail policies and rehabilitative programs, and were implemented nationwide in the years that followed. But the critical demand for more Black and Latino staff proved to be the most difficult to implement. The problem was not the hiring practices of the prisons, it was the locations of the prisons themselves. As leading scholar William Nagel explained shortly after the rebellion: “To avoid a federal Attica, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is now feverishly attempting to recruit black staff, but its task is complicated by the remoteness of its facilities.”
While existing prisons themselves are impossible to move, this lesson of Attica about the dangers of staff disparities was lost in the rush of the late 1980s and 1990s to build more prisons. Speculative ideas about rural economic development trumped safe and rehabilitative correctional policy. Two-thirds of new prisons were built in rural areas, despite the experience at Attica and despite research showing that keeping an incarcerated person close to home increases family visits and reduces the odds of recidivism or a return to prison. Thus, despite, a consensus that prisons should hire more Black and Latino staff, progress has been limited.
By 2005, (the latest year with complete comparative data), the incarcerated population at Attica had increased to 77% Black and Latino. But out of a total staff of 859, the number of blacks had only risen to 12 and the Latino staff to 9. Attica’s staff remains overwhelmingly white because Attica itself has not moved. Attica remains located in a rural, overwhelmingly white region of New York State.
Attica’s staffing pattern is dramatic, but nationally, it’s not atypical. The fact that Blacks and Latinos make up 57% of the nation’s incarcerated population but hold only 28% of the correctional jobs is further proof that the bulk of the nation’s prisons are still in communities that are very different than the communities that incarcerated people come from.
In part, these facts show how the prison system’s wild growth undermined its own goals. But from the perspective of voting rights, they tell a larger story about how mass incarceration dilutes the votes of individual Blacks and Latinos who don’t have any direct contact with the criminal justice system.
In New York State, 98% of the state’s prison cells are in disproportionately white Senate districts. We don’t have similar statistics for the entire country, but our other research suggests that most states outside of the deep South follow the same pattern. We found 173 counties where more than half of the Black population was incarcerated. These aren’t necessarily the most racist counties in the nation; rather it’s places where the people confined inside the correctional facilities look very little like the people who live outside.
Except for a handful of states that have passed legislation to fix the problem, our nation’s redistricting system is built on an assumption that predates mass incarceration: that it is to count incarcerated people as if they were residents of the prison. By common sense and most state laws, people in prison are residents of their home communities, not a remote prison cell.
At the Prison Policy Initiative we talk a lot about how prison-based gerrymandering gives extra influence to the districts that contain prisons, and dilutes the votes of everyone else. But the Attica anniversary gives us a powerful reminder that prison-based gerrymandering places a particularly high burden on Black and Latino voters. These communities are denied their true populations at redistricting time, diluting their votes, and then their rightful populations are used to inflate votes in very different districts that do not share their priorities.
Peter Wagner is Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. Rose Heyer developed the GIS methodology for our prison-based gerrymandering project.