Prison Policy Initiative celebrates 10 year anniversary: A decade of fighting prison-based gerrymandering
by Peter Wagner, September 14, 2011
The Prison Policy Initiative was founded 10 years ago today with the goal of turning my academic research on what we now call prison-based gerrymandering into a national discussion of how prison counts impact redistricting. We’ve come a long way! In this and subsequent posts, I wanted to tell the story of how the Prison Policy Initiative grew as an organization and built a national movement to end prison-based gerrymandering.
Ten years ago, I was in law school wrapping up an almost year long independent study project with Professor Jim Gardner that linked felon disenfranchisement to what we now call prison-based gerrymandering. My paper, “Prisoner disenfranchisement and state legislative redistricting in New York State: Electoral appropriation and the return of the 3/5ths clause” had the potential to change how our electoral system works, but it needed an audience.
I, along with UMass PhD candidate Stephen Healy and Smith College student Sarah Kowalaski, founded the Prison Policy Initiative ten years ago, building a platform to transition my academic paper into a policy paper. Six months later, I was testifying before the New York State legislature telling them about prison-based gerrymandering and urging them to start the redistricting process over with better data that met the state’s constitutional definition of residence. The legislature ignored me at the time, but nine years later, the legislature took our advice.
Over the course of 7 months, we turned my academic paper into what the Prison Policy Initiative eventually released as Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout. The biggest challenge we faced was learning how to explain the connections between the Census, redistricting, disenfranchisement and vote dilution in an accessible way. In an encounter that would change our strategy forever, we got a huge boost from a trained communicator in the media.
While Stephen, Sarah and I were working on the report, the Sentencing Project’s Marc Mauer introduced me to Jonathan Tilove, then a correspondent for Newhouse News Service covering race and immigration, who was doing a feature-length piece about how Census counts affect districting. I shared my academic paper with Jonathan and spent hours discussing it with him. He wrote an article that’s still timely today: “Minority Prison Inmates Skew Local Populations as States Redistrict,” which linked the impact of what we now call prison-based gerrymandering on state level redistricting to the impact on county and municipal redistricting.
Prior to Jonathan’s article, explaining my research used to take hours. His piece helped us succinctly explain who benefits from prison-based gerrymandering. For example, in a single clear sentence Jonathan powerfully summarized one concept that used to take me 15 minutes to explain. Many of the innovations in Jonathan’s article informed how we constructed our “Importing Constituents” report, and its discussion of intra-rural impacts inspired our strategy for the next decade.
The article’s publication introduced our work to Brenda Wright, then managing attorney at the National Voting Rights Institute, and now Director of the Democracy Program at Demos. Brenda reached out to share her expertise and has been one of our closest advisors and colleagues ever since.
With these early successes under our belt, the stage was set for the release of our data and the Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout report, but that will be a story for later in this series.
As for my co-founders? Stephen Healy is now a professor of Geography at Worcester State University, and a board member of EPOCA, a leader in the fight against prison-based gerrymandering in Massachusetts. Sarah Kowalski stays involved in the Prison Policy Initiative and teaches Chinese in the Worcester, Massachusetts school system.