10 Year Anniversary archives

by Peter Wagner, April 26, 2012

This article is one in a series commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the Prison Policy Initiative and our work.

The Prison Policy Initiative released our first report ten years ago last Sunday.
Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout was the first in-depth district by district analysis of what we now call prison-based gerrymandering. I analyzed each proposed New York State Senate and State Assembly district, looked at where incarcerated people came from, and suggested both interim and long-term solutions.

This report was the first of dozens of analyses we issued over the next decade. This first report was tough going. I hadn’t yet been introduced to Rose Heyer, who developed the electronic research methodology for the project, so all of the analysis was done manually. Every time the legislature changed the proposed plans, I’d have to start over.

After several rounds of this, I recruited some of my fellow law students, Tammy Ciak and Ann Fisher, to help me re-crunch the data tables so the report could be released before the legislature changed the plan yet again. I wanted the report to be relevant and spark a much-needed discussion while redistricting was still underway.

The report received great instantaneous feedback from forward-thinking criminal justice and election reform advocates. This is when I started collaborating with Brenda Wright of the National Voting Rights Institute (later Dēmos) and I was invited to present at the National Summit on the Impact of Incarceration on African-American Families
and Communities. That conference led to our work with Jazz Hayden, Manning Marable and many others.

And the initial media response to our first report? Zero. Given our reputation for bringing media attention to the issue, this might be surprising. But we couldn’t get a single paper to touch our report for months. The problem we identified was too big. The reporters I spoke with loved the issue, but their editors wouldn’t approve a story.

Typically, redistricting stories are simple ones about the partisan horse race of winners and losers. Even the stories that address the systemic flaws tend to focus on who controls the process, not on biases in the data. The first story about the report and prison-based gerrymandering didn’t see print until the NAACP’s bimonthly The New Crisis put it on the cover months later.

With this first report out, the national discussion had begun.

by Peter Wagner, March 14, 2012

The Prison Policy Initiative had its first public debut ten years ago today, when I showed up at a redistricting hearing in the Bronx and told the committee to scrap their proposed maps and start over with a new dataset that counted incarcerated people at their true, home addresses. Prison populations shouldn’t be used to dilute the votes of people who do not live next to prisons. The public was intrigued by my testimony, but at that point the legislature didn’t take my advice.

Fast forward a decade: four states have ended prison-based gerrymandering. New York and Maryland have passed laws to count people in prison at home for this round of redistricting, and both states’ laws were successfully defended in court. Delaware and California passed legislation that will take effect after the next Census in 2020. The Census Bureau continued to count incarcerated people in the wrong place, but in 2010 they made an important change. They published the prison count data earlier than ever before, so that redistricting bodies would have the technical ability to avoid or minimize prison-based gerrymandering if they wished.

In that intervening decade, we worked to put numbers on the problem, develop solutions, and recruit civil rights, criminal justice and good government groups into a large movement for reform at the local, state and federal levels. Together, we’ve permanently changed how our democracy works in 4 states and hundreds of counties; and we’ve set our sights on a permanent national solutions.

Thank you for joining with us!

by Peter Wagner, March 12, 2012


The first major national article about prison-based gerrymandering appeared ten years ago today. Jonathan Tilove, then the race and immigration reporter for Newhouse News Service, wrote a major feature that connected the dots between my academic research on how the Census Bureau’s prison counts distort democracy in the New York State legislature, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman’s research on prison demographics in Florida, and the redistricting struggles of county officials in Colorado, Louisiana and Florida.

To quote from Jonathan’s article, at the time the “issue [hadn’t] gained much serious attention or debate at the national or state levels.” But the article changed all that.

As I wrote on the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Prison Policy Initiative:

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 Jonathan’s 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.

The movement to abolish prison-based gerrymandering has come along way since Jonathan’s article was written, with advances such as:

  • The publication of dozens of reports on how prison-based gerrymandering distorts democracy in state and local governments across the country
  • The New York Times editorial board coining the term “prison-based gerrymandering”
  • Four states passing legislation to end prison-based gerrymandering
  • The Census Bureau changing how prison count data is published
  • Hundreds of counties and municipalities refusing to engage in prison-based gerrymandering

There’s been great progress since 2002, but the article is still a concise introduction to the problem, and a powerful explanation of how the Census Bureau’s prison miscount is bad for both urban and rural people. In Iberville Parish Louisiana, prison-based gerrymandering would have meant drawing a school board district that had only two voters. In the New York Senate, legislators who supported prison expansion boasted that they were glad that people incarcerated in their districts couldn’t vote because “they wouldn’t vote for me”.

Ten years ago, prison-based gerrymandering was virtually unknown. The issue was intriguing but complicated and obscure. Jonathan Tilove’s article was the first to focus on this problem and to give the public the tools they need to understand why prison-based gerrymandering needed to be abolished.

If you missed his article ten years ago, or if you haven’t read it again recently, today is a great time to read it again.

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 Kowalski, 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.

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