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Louisiana Local Governments’ Struggles With Prison-Based Gerrymandering Could Be Eased By State

by Hillary Fenton, August 22, 2012  

The state of Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of anywhere in the world. This creates a host of issues for the state, including the distortion of democracy caused by the inclusion of large prisons during redistricting. This problem is called prison-based gerrymandering. Though some parishes in Louisiana have implemented their own solutions to prison-based gerrymandering in their parish local government districts, called “police jury districts,” other parishes continue to include incarcerated populations during redistricting. Given the inconsistency in parish democracy, a statewide solution to prison-based gerrymandering may be necessary.

Among the parishes with the proportionally largest prison populations, about half excluded their prison populations during redistricting following the 2010 Census, preventing the vote distortion that would have been caused by including the incarcerated populations. For the most part, the higher a parish’s prison population relative to its total population, the more likely they were to exclude the prison population.

Two parishes excluded their incarcerated populations in order to prevent an impossible electoral situation. Claiborne Parish, on the northern border of the state, would have had an entire police jury district comprised of incarcerated populations if they had included the prison populations during redistricting.

West Feliciana Parish also faced the same problem. The parish is home to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola, which contains 5,147 people according to the 2010 Census. West Feliciana as a whole has a reported population of 15,625 and seven police jury districts. This means that if the prison population had been included during redistricting, the incarcerated population would have filled two entire police jury districts. For those who are working to end prison-based gerrymandering in Louisiana, it might seem strange to look for support from the parish that contains Angola; however, that parish is the prime in-state example of why recognizing and preventing prison-based gerrymandering is so important. As both Claiborne and West Feliciana parishes know well, when prison-based gerrymandering reaches such dramatic levels, the problem becomes impossible to ignore.

Though parishes were more likely to exclude prison populations when those populations made up a high percentage of the parish population, a few parishes went against this trend by including large incarcerated populations during redistricting, creating severe distortions in their local democracy.

Allen Parish has the most acute prison-based gerrymandering vote distortion of any parish in the state. Two of its seven districts contain large corrections facilities: 66% of District 1 is incarcerated in FCI and FDC Oakdale, and 39% of District 6 is incarcerated in the state-run Allen Correctional Center. This means that the non-incarcerated populations of these districts are substantially smaller than the populations of the districts without prisons. Because these smaller voting populations in the prison districts each elect a whole representative for themselves, each voter in the prison districts has more say in parish government than those in other districts. In District 1 for example, one voter in that district has the same political power as three voters in other districts.

Inconsistency in addressing prison-based gerrymandering is not only a problem among Louisiana parishes, but also within parishes themselves. Although FCI and FDC Oakdale are included in Allen Parish police jury districts, ironically the same prison populations are excluded by a city in Allen Parish: the City of Oakdale. Otherwise, Oakdale would have had one district that was entirely people incarcerated at the federal prison who are unable to vote.

Statewide legislation would eliminate these inconsistent approaches from parish to parish and would, most importantly, would help to ensure that all Louisiana citizens have equal access to their local governments.

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