by Aleks Kajstura, June 23, 2014

Over 3 years after New York counties and cities were prohibited from engaging in prison gerrymandering, and prison-adjusted redistricting data was made available, the city of Rome is still stalling on redistricting.

The city continues to rely on wards that are padded with incarcerated populations, including people that were incarcerated at the now-closed Oneida Correctional Facility. Redistricting will be on the council’s agenda once again this week, but they’re holding out on implementing any potential plan until 2016.

That’s a long time to wait for democracy.


by Aleks Kajstura, June 18, 2014

How well does our nation do with voter turnout? Thanks to the Census Bureau, we may not really know. Voter registration and turnout are common metrics for gauging the health of our democracy, but the numbers are easily skewed by Census Bureau methodology that counts incarcerated people in the wrong place.

A recent report, Unequal Access: A County-by-County Analysis of Election Administration in Swing States in the 2012 Election, from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, used the Census’s population data to rank counties by the percentage of the county’s population that was registered to vote, and the percentage that actually turned out to vote.

The report based its numbers on CVAP (Census Voting Age Population); CVAP gives you a rough estimate of the number of folks eligible to vote. It seems like just the sort of number you’d want to judge your turnout against. But since the Census counts incarcerated people as if they are residents of the county where the correctional facility is located, things can go terribly wrong with the math.

DeKalb County, Missouri, for example is ranked as second-worst in the state for both voter registration and turnout. But that’s because roughly a quarter of the people the Census counted there were not actually residents of the county, but rather folks incarcerated at two state prisons that happened to be located there.

The people incarcerated in those prisons are very likely not residents of DeKalb, and therefore not eligible to vote in the county (whether or not they are disenfranchised by the state). Taking the prison populations into account when looking at the voter registration and turnout, the County’s numbers look much better (middle to top of the rankings).

The simplest solution for getting accurate election data would be for the Census Bureau to just count incarcerated people at home, where they reside. In the meantime, the best practice for researches is to use the Bureau’s group quarters data to adjust Census-reported population when doing voting analyses.


by Aleks Kajstura, June 18, 2014

You may remember McAlester, Oklahoma, the city that historically avoided prison gerrymandering, but was reluctantly prison-gerrymandering its wards in 2011, having inadvertently bound themselves to do so in a recent charter amendment.

Today I’m pleased to report that McAlester is well on its way to solving the problem by revising its charter once again to allow the city to exclude incarcerated populations from the data the city uses to draw the city council wards. Just last week, the city council approved a resolution (Proposition V) that will put the charter change on the August ballot for voters’ approval.

The charter amendment will be up for a vote on August 26, hopefully I’ll be able to report back that McAlester residents chose to end prison gerrymandering once again in the city.


by Sarah Hertel-Fernandez, June 16, 2014

Having recently returned to the office as a summer Research Associate, I have had the opportunity to reflect on my time as an intern last semester. Most of my time was spent in the office, but on a very rainy Wednesday in April, I accompanied the Prison Policy Initiative’s staff to Rhode Island to observe the hearing for Davidson vs. Cranston. Beyond being a welcome interruption my midterms at Smith College, it was a change to see both PPI and the broader legal system in action.

As I listened to Peter, Aleks, and Leah reviewing the case and the schedule for the day on the ride to Providence, I was reminded by each of them in turn that I could and should ask questions.

I had started my once-a-week internship in January 2014, and besides being a crash course in prison reform, it had been a continuous, continuing lesson in learning how to ask the right questions. Through a series of small research projects and the guidance of the staff, I’d been learning how to frame research projects, how to be flexible with that framework, and what goes into making that research presentable and compelling. When investigating the ways in which inequality is created and sustained, and imagining how more equitable systems might take their place, both existing problems and their possible solutions must be made clear to your audience.

The hearing illustrated the importance of how research is presented. The plaintiffs were not incarcerated individuals but rather residents from other wards whose voting power was diluted by prison gerrymandering. A statistic, calculated from Census Bureau data, was repeated by Adam Lioz, the lawyer for the plaintiffs from Demos: three voters from the district where the prison population was counted have a much voting power as four from another. It was framed as a violation of the “one person, one vote” principle of equal representation, skewing population data that is used to apportion that representation. When oral arguments must be so concise, presentation is vital.

It was a reminder to me that the damage done by the prison gerrymandering is not just visited upon the communities from which prisoners (and their voting power) are taken. It distorts our whole political landscape. It was a day of sidestepping puddles between the ACLU office and the courthouse, learning about the planning and collaboration that went into this lawsuit, and realizing once again the importance of this work in the company of people who work well together.

I’m grateful for this opportunity to continue working with PPI, and I know I will take what I learn wherever my academic and professional life takes me.

PPI and Demos in Cranston RI

Left to Right: Peter Wagner (Executive Director, PPI), Aleks Kajstura (Legal Director, PPI), Adam Lioz (Counsel, Demos), Brenda Wright (Vice President, Legal Strategies, Demos), Leah Sakala (Policy Analyst, PPI), Sarah Hertel-Fernandez (Research Associate, PPI).


by Aleks Kajstura, June 10, 2014

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining three League of Women Voters members (from Virginia, Delaware, and California) and the Census Bureau’s redistricting data chief, Cathy McCully, on a caucus panel to talk about prison gerrymandering at the League of Women Voters’ 2014 Convention.

Our panel on prison gerrymandering covered the scope of the issue across the U.S., legislative and litigation efforts seeking to end prison gerrymandering, as well as the Census Bureau’s perspective on the problem.

I also used the panel as an opportunity to debut PPI’s new briefing packet on prison gerrymandering, check it out.


by Aleks Kajstura, May 14, 2014

Last night the Rhode Island State Senate passed S 2286A, a bill to end prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island. The bill passed unanimously with bipartisan support.

Picture of vote totals displayed for Rhode Island's Senate's vote on S2286A, a bill to end prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island

The bill would count incarcerated people at their home addresses for redistricting purposes. The last time the state redistricted, it used population data from the Census Bureau, which tabulated incarcerated people as if they were residents of the correctional facilities. That choice continues to inflate the votes of Rhode Island residents who reside in districts that contain the state’s prison complex, Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI). But voting equality won out last night when the Senators representing the districts that contain the ACI were among those to cast their votes in support of the bill.

Unfortunately the bill has an uphill battle coming up in the House, where the House Speaker, Representative Mattiello, is apparently opposed to electoral equality. The Providence Journal reported that Mattiello indicated that the bill “will not get a vote in the House.”

Mattiello’s comment was a dramatic reversal on his part given that in 2010 he supported counting people at their actual residence, saying: “I’d be happy to have more people who can actually vote for me.” (Folks incarcerated at the ACI can’t vote for Mattiello. They are either disenfranchised or must vote by absentee ballot for a representative in their home district.)

Stay tuned for updates as the bill heads to the House Judiciary Committee next.


by Peter Wagner, May 2, 2014

Last night, the Rhode Island Senate Committee on the Judiciary unanimously passed S2286, “The Residence of Those in Government Custody Act,” sponsored by Senators Metts, Crowley, Pichardo, and Jabour. The bill now moves on to the floor. Earlier this week, the House committee held a hearing on the bill. To stay up to date on the bill, see our Rhode Island campaign page.


by Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala, May 1, 2014

testimony thumbnail Here at PPI we talk a lot about how nearly everyone benefits when state and local governments take action to end prison gerrymandering. That’s because prison gerrymandering gives a political boost to only the handful people who happen to live right near a state’s biggest prison, and dilutes everyone else’s votes.

This week when we were writing testimony in support of Rhode Island’s pending bill to count incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes, we set out to document the extent of prison gerrymandering’s impact in that state.

The results were grim: When we tallied up all the people who suffer from prison gerrymandering on the state level with senate and house elections, and on the local level in municipal elections, we found that only 112 Rhode Islanders — 0.011% of the state — are left unscathed.

In our opinion, that’s reason enough for the Rhode Island legislature to move forward with putting an end to prison gerrymandering. But there are lots of other good reasons dictated by both Rhode Island law and common sense:

  • Rhode Island law clearly says that incarcerated people aren’t “residents” of the cells they’re confined in (Rhode Island General Laws § 17-1-3.1.).
  • The incarcerated people who retain the right to vote aren’t even allowed to vote in the jurisdiction they’re incarcerated in. Their only option is to vote absentee in their home communities.
  • Incarcerated people can’t meaningfully participate in the community that they’re confined in, and in Rhode Island they don’t even stay very long. The median wait for people who are detained pre-trial is three days, and the average sentence doled out to those who have been convicted of a crime is under two years.
  • Rhode Island’s prison gerrymandering problem is particularly severe because everyone who’s incarcerated in the state is shipped to one place: the Adult Correctional Institute in the City of Cranston.

H 7263, “The Residence of Those in Government Custody Act,” would protect ALL Rhode Island residents by ensuring that 100% of the votes cast in the state are free from the pernicious influence of prison gerrymandering.


by Peter Wagner, April 9, 2014

Last night, I attended a fascinating panel at Yale, “Incarceration in America: Past and Present: A panel with Three Leading Scholars.” Presenting were
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; Caleb Smith, Professor of English, Yale University and Prison Policy Initiative board member Heather Ann Thompson, Associate Professor of History, Temple University.

The Moderator was David Blight, Director of Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.

The event’s summary:

The three scholars [discussed] the history and impact of incarceration in the US — from imprisonment and ideas about prisons in the 19th Century, to the increasing connections between race, social science and criminality in the early 20th Century, to late 20th and 21st Century mass incarceration.

And here, Heather used our new briefing, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie:

Heather Thompson presenting

In her talk, Heather also used a map from our report on prison gerrymandering in Pennsylvania and received a lot of shocked and outraged responses from the moderator and the audience about how the Census Bureau’s prison count distorts democracy.

I should have shared them with Heather before the talk, but we’ve also produced some maps illustrating our research in Connecticut that weren’t included in our 2013 report:

Nine CT House districts meet minimum population requirements only because they include prison populations

Map showing that seven majority-white CT state districts get extra representation because they each contain at last 1,000 incarcerated Blacks and Latinos from elsewhere in the state

Connecticut provides one of the more dramatic instance of prison gerrymandering in the nation. There are three districts where about 10 percent of the population is actually made up of incarcerated people from elsewhere in the state. In all three districts, more than half of the reported African-American population is actually incarcerated:

In Connecticut, should 9 equal 10?

For more on prison gerrymandering in Connecticut see our Connecticut campaign page.

* * *

Note: District 52 is 9.9% incarcerated and 87.4% of the African-American population in the district is incarcerated. District 59 is 13.9% incarcerated and 71.7% of the African-American population in the district is incarcerated. District 61 is 9.1% incarcerated and 59.0% of the African-American population in the district is incarcerated.


by Aleks Kajstura, April 3, 2014

On Monday Cranston voters and the ACLU of Rhode Island asked the court to let the case continue against the City’s prison gerrymandering scheme, filing a response to the City’s motion to dismiss.

Our Davidson case page has more info on the case, including the response above and other legal documents.