A portrait of Peter Wagner.
Peter Wagner
Executive Director
I need your help. For 14 years, the Prison Policy Initiative has been at the forefront of the movement to keep the prison system from exerting undue influence on our electoral process. Our work has changed how our democracy works in 4 states and hundreds of local governments. We've even won at the Supreme Court, but our long-term viability depends on people like you investing in our work.

Can you stand up for democracy by joining our small network of donors today? You can make a one-time gift, or become a monthly donor. Gifts recieved in 2015 will be automatically matched by other donors.

I thank you for investing in our work for a more just tomorrow.
—Peter Wagner
... (read more)(read less)

by Aleks Kajstura, February 26, 2015

Yesterday, jointly with the Justice Policy Institute, we released a new report that for the first time mapped where people incarcerated in Maryland state prisons come from and how much Maryland taxpayers spend on their incarceration. The report includes detailed maps and information that can better inform investment decisions in these communities to help solve long-standing challenges and improve public safety.

The research was possible because of the data that was generated when Maryland implemented their No Representation Without Population law, ending prison gerrymandering. In order to count incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes, the state needed to find out where incarcerated people live. Incarcerated people already had their addresses on file at the Department of Corrections, and the Maryland Planning Department mapped them all out in preparation for redistricting, then adjusted the population data the state received from the Census Bureau accordingly. By comparing the State’s list of populations and the Census Bureau’s reports we were able to show where the state focused its spending on incarceration.

As Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel-21), one of the law’s lead sponsors, put it:

“I introduced the No Representation Without Population Act to provide better data for redistricting purposes, and I’m now looking forward to using all the data and information generated by this law to directly enlighten future criminal justice policy choices in Maryland.”

Additional data and links are available on our home communities page.

by Bernadette Rabuy, January 27, 2015

In this decade, we have seen increasingly more municipalities and counties take the necessary steps to actively avoid prison gerrymandering. While most places avoid prison gerrymandering by adjusting Census Bureau data to draw districts that exclude prison populations, some small cities with large prisons have avoided prison gerrymandering by changing their form of government. For example, the cities of Berlin in New Hampshire and Anamosa and Clarinda in Iowa have moved from electing their representatives from wards (the name for their local government districts) to an at-large election system. By doing so, they addressed two pressing problems at once: unequal representation caused by prison gerrymandering and a lack of candidates for city council positions.

Previously, Anamosa and Clarinda were some of the most dramatic examples of prison gerrymandering in the country. The situation in Anamosa was so acute that the city got national attention in 2008 when there were no candidates for city council, resulting in a city resident being elected to the Anamosa City Council with just two write-in votes (neither of them his). Unfortunately for Anamosa, the state of Iowa is one of a handful of states in which state law requires the use of federal Census data for city redistricting even though the Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated people in a way that is incompatible with other parts of state law. The Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated people as if they were residents of the location of the correctional facility, but that’s at odds with Iowa law that states that a residence is “a fixed or permanent abode or habitation to which the party, when absent, intends to return.” A prison does not fit this definition because incarcerated people do not intend to live at the prison and certainly do not intend to return there “when absent.” The Anamosa City Council felt that the only way to avoid prison gerrymandering was to get rid of its wards.

A few years ago, Clarinda residents, led by Charlie Richardson, also voted to get rid of their ward system when a councilman was forced to resign from the council when he moved to another ward. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but Clarinda was already having a difficult time finding individuals interested in serving on the council. Richardson thought that it was an even worse situation “when you have an experienced council person that would have to resign because of moving” so he started gathering petition signatures, and, in November 2012, the move to at-large elections appeared on the ballot.

Beyond Clarinda’s private struggles recruiting council candidates, the prison in Clarinda clearly skewed voter representation. While each of Clarinda’s three wards had approximately 1,800 residents on paper, the north ward was home to the Clarinda Correctional Facility where approximately 1,000 individuals confined in that facility constituted 50% of the ward’s population. An individual living in the north ward had twice the political clout of people in any other ward.

As Clarinda Mayor Gordon Kokenge told the Clarinda Herald Journal, “It’s just staggering how much the numbers have gone down on eligible voters on that end of town. What this thing really does is it just puts a balance back into it for everybody in the community.” Unsurprisingly, Clarinda residents voted for an at-large system.

The city of Berlin, New Hampshire faced a similar situation in 2011 when it was considering a redistricting plan that would have moved a councilor from ward three — the ward that had the state prison — to another ward. Not only would this have forced the ward three councilor to either resign or run against an existing candidate, but it was also likely that Berlin would have had difficulty filling the newly open spot. Councilor Diana Nelson told the Berlin Daily Sun that transitioning to an at-large election system might be an effective solution to attract qualified candidates from throughout the city. The councilors also realized that an at-large system could be the answer to the problem they were going to face when the new federal prison opened in a year. Counting the federal prison population — which was expected to be 2,000 people — as residents could have led to a prison gerrymandering situation four times as bad as the one that already existed due to the state prison. As Berlin’s mayor told the press, the wards were less essential than they had been in the past. He said the city’s political structure was set up back when Berlin had a much larger population and “was divided into separate ethnic neighborhoods.” Berlin voters agreed and overwhelmingly voted in favor of changing to an at-large system.

In contrast to these three cities, many communities in the country are moving the other way, from at-large systems to districts, because districts are often a better way to elect representatives and protect minority voting rights. But these three cities are all relatively small (with populations under 10,000) and, as Clarinda’s Richardson told the local newspaper, Clarinda is a rural area with no “great concentration of race, nationality, age or economic well being.”1

As we can see from these three cities, there are plenty of ways to avoid prison gerrymandering, including eliminating the prison count from the Census data or even eliminating districts as Berlin, NH and the two cities in Iowa did. And speaking of Iowa, I’ve now got my eye on Mount Pleasant, Iowa, which is currently the worst example of prison gerrymandering in the state. That city has a ward where almost half (42%) of one ward’s “residents” are actually people incarcerated at Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility. Will Mount Pleasant follow in the direction of Clarinda, Anamosa, and Berlin and say goodbye to phantom constituents? Only time will tell.

  1. Further, at-large election systems can be implemented alongside alternative voting systems — such as cumulative voting or limited voting — in order to better provide representation to minority communities with strong preferences. For more information on alternative voting systems, see: http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/justin-levitt-speaks-alternative-voting-systems-and-redistricting-consequences  ↩

by Aleks Kajstura, January 13, 2015

To mark the start of the 114th Congress, the The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights recently sent their list of executive and legislative priorities to the White House, federal agencies, and the House and Senate.

The priorities include supporting the Census Bureau’s efforts to end prison gerrymandering:

Support sufficient funding to ensure thorough testing and planning for the 2020 Census. This should include ensuring that operational and technological innovations designed to contain overall census costs are robust and address the persistent disproportionate undercount of populations of color and other historically harder-to-count population groups, such as immigrants, people with disabilities, young children, and rural and low-income households, as well as prison gerrymandering and other design and policy issues that affect a fair and accurate census.

by Aleks Kajstura, January 7, 2015

Yesterday, Connecticut-based organizations called on the legislature to finally end prison gerrymandering in this upcoming session:

January 6, 2015

Senator Eric Coleman
Co-chair, Joint Committee on Judiciary 
Legislative Office Building, Room 2500
Hartford, CT 06106-1591
Representative William Tong
Co-chair, Joint Committee on Judiciary
Legislative Office Building, Room 2502
Hartford, CT 06106-1591

Dear Senator Coleman and Representative Tong,

We, the undersigned Connecticut-based organizations, urge the legislature to pass legislation to end “prison gerrymandering.” Currently, the state allows the Census Bureau’s method of counting incarcerated populations to skew the redistricting process, undermining the principle of “one person, one vote.”

The Census Bureau tabulates incarcerated people at prison locations, rather than in the home communities they come from and to which the vast majority will return. When Connecticut uses unadjusted Census Bureau data to draw electoral districts, voters who live in districts that contain prisons are granted undue additional political clout, and the votes cast by residents everywhere else are diluted.

Connecticut law directly conflicts with how the Census Bureau counts people in prison: “No person shall be deemed to have lost his residence in any town by reason of his absence therefrom in any institution maintained by the state.” (Sec. 9-14.) Furthermore, 28% of the people incarcerated in Connecticut retain their right to vote because they have not been convicted of a felony. Connecticut law requires people who vote from prison to vote absentee as residents of their home districts, never from the prison districts. (Sec. 9-14a).

Prison gerrymandering has a dramatic impact on Connecticut’s democracy in general, and the voting strength of communities of color in particular. There are almost enough people incarcerated in Connecticut prisons alone to constitute an entire state house district. The prison population in Connecticut is disproportionately (73%) African-American and Latino but the Census Bureau credits most of the prison population to five majority-White towns that have large prisons. Using this flawed data to draw electoral districts serves to enhance the weight of a vote cast in those majority-White towns and dilutes the votes of everyone else in the state.

The Connecticut legislature should join New York, Maryland, Delaware and California in passing legislation to protect our democracy from the Census Bureau’s flawed prison counts. We note that the towns of Enfield and Cheshire already reject prison gerrymandering when drawing town council districts, and it’s time for our state legislature to follow their lead.

We urge you to act quickly to avoid the risk that yet another legislative redistricting cycle will take place with almost 17,000 Connecticut residents unnecessarily counted in the wrong place.

We thank you for your attention to this important matter.


A Better Way Foundation
ACLU of Connecticut
Career Resources, Inc.
Common Cause Connecticut
Community Partners in Action
Connecticut National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
CT Citizen Action Group
League of Women Voters of Connecticut
National Association of Social Workers – Connecticut (NASW-CT)

by Aleks Kajstura, December 22, 2014

The Census Bureau just released this decade’s “view from the states” report. Officially titled Designing P.L. 94-171 Redistricting Data for the Year 2020 Census, the report analyzes how well the Census Bureau’s 2010 redistricting data release served the states, and what changes should be considered for the 2020 Census.

The report conveyed states’ desires to avoid prison gerrymandering and reiterated the Bureau’s commitment to addressing the issue:

…[T]he Census Bureau will get the opportunity to research the feasibility and accuracy of reallocating prison populations to their former residence, following the selection of 2020 Census design.

The Bureau also reiterated the steps it had taken with the 2010 Census to to aid states that wanted to avoid or minimize prison gerrymandering, and spelled out states’ specific requests to continue progress with the 2020 Census:

States applauded the Census Bureau for developing
the Advanced Group Quarters File and making it available so quickly after the release of the 2010 Census (P.L. 94-171) Redistricting Data Summary Files. In the event that selected [group quarters] populations are not reallocated, states have requested the Census Bureau develop a product which will enable states with legislation to remove or reallocate those selected group quarters populations such as military, student, and prisoner populations. States that implemented the reallocation of prisoners have requested that group quarters characteristics be included in the 2020 Census (P.L. 94-171) Redistricting Data Summary File.

by Aleks Kajstura, November 19, 2014

LCCR report thumbnail Prison gerrymandering was one of the issues addressed in a recent report from The Leadership Conference Education Fund, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, and the NALEO Educational Fund, Race and Ethnicity in the 2020 Census: Improving Data to Capture a Multiethnic America. The report focuses on the Bureau’s current and proposed methods of collecting and tabulating race and ethnicity data.

As the Census Bureau moves towards 2020, and is likely to use more administrative records, one of the report’s 17 recommendations calls for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to lead an effort to improve correctional facilities’ administrative records:

OMB should convene a working group of experts from the Census Bureau, Department of Justice, state correctional departments, prison reform advocates, and other knowledgeable civil rights stakeholders, to evaluate the quality of race and ethnicity data on the incarcerated population and to recommend ways to improve the accuracy, completeness, and consistency of these data.

For more information on the Census Bureau’s data collection practices in correctional facilities, see my analysis of the Bureau’s “Ethnographic Study of the Group Quarters Population in the 2010 Census: Jails and Prisons”.

by Leah Sakala, October 31, 2014

On Tuesday, prison gerrymandering will dilute election votes cast for state- and local-level candidates across the nation. But, for the first time, Maryland voters won’t have to worry.

This is a big change for Marylanders: in previous state elections, every 4 voters in Delegate District 2B had as much political clout in state affairs as any 5 voters in every other district (see below map). That’s because 18% of the people officially counted in 2B were actually incarcerated people from other parts of the state. Maryland outlawed prison gerrymandering back in 2010 by passing the historic “No Representation Without Population Act.” This law required the state to count incarcerated people at their home addresses in the most recent round of district line-drawing.

Next Tuesday will mark the first state-wide election in which people vote from districts that count incarcerated people in the right place: at home. (And some local Maryland communities, such as Somerset County, are already reaping the benefits of being freed from prison gerrymandering.) Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election, upholding the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” mandate is reason to celebrate.

Maryland districts were severely distorted by prison gerrymandering

UPDATE: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article misstated the vote-strength equivalency of an 18% vote-strength enhancement.

September 30, 2014

Dēmos and Prison Policy Initiative Applaud Senators Rosenberg, Chang-Diaz, and Dorcena Forry and Representatives Moran, Carvalho, and Rushing for Leadership to Protect One Person, One Vote Principle

On September 12 2014, the Massachusetts legislature sent the United States Census Bureau a resolution adopted by both chambers, calling on the Census Bureau to reform its outdated practice of enumerating incarcerated persons as "residents" of the prisons in which they are temporarily incarcerated. This practice leads state and local governments to violate the constitutional principle of one person, one vote by granting additional undue political clout to voters who live near prisons and diluting the votes cast by everyone else. As the resolution explains:

"Census data results in distortions of the one-person, one-vote principle in drawing electoral districts in Massachusetts, diluting the representation of the majority of districts that do not contain prisons."

Massachusetts’ resolution urges the Census Bureau to provide states with redistricting data that counts incarcerated persons at their residential address.

In response to these developments, Dēmos and the Prison Policy Initiative, non-partisan public policy organizations concerned about fair electoral representation, released the following statement:

"A prison is not a home," said Brenda Wright, Vice President for Legal Strategies at Dēmos. "Prison-based gerrymandering distorts democracy and fair representation in Massachusetts, and should not be tolerated in our state. Dēmos applauds the leadership of Senators Rosenberg, Chang-Diaz, and Dorcena Forry and Representatives Moran, Carvalho, and Rushing in achieving passage of the resolution urging the Census Bureau to count incarcerated persons in their home communities, where they are considered to reside for virtually all legal purposes."

Dēmos and the Prison Policy Initiative have long partnered in the goal of ending prison-based gerrymandering. "The national trend in state and local governments of rejecting prison gerrymandering sends a clear message to the Census Bureau that it’s time to update the residence rules," said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. "I’m proud of the Massachusetts Legislature’s steps to urge the Census Bureau to end prison gerrymandering nationwide 2020."

During the public hearings on redistricting in Massachusetts following the 2010 Census, Dēmos and PPI were among many groups and individuals urging the Massachusetts legislature to add its voice to those of other stakeholders calling for change in how the Census Bureau enumerates incarcerated persons.

The Special Joint Committee on Legislative Redistricting in Massachusetts took note of these concerns in its final report (downloads PDF), devoting about a quarter of the redistricting report to the vote dilution caused by the Census Bureau's decision to tabulate incarcerated people as residents of the prison, and suggesting this resolution as their first key recommendation.

Dēmos and PPI strongly applaud the Massachusetts legislature for its leadership in adopting this recommendation and calling for permanent, nation-wide reform of how incarcerated persons are tabulated in the Census. The Massachusetts Legislature’s resolution sends a strong message that Massachusetts residents, and all U.S. voters, deserve to have a fair say in elections. It’s time for the Census Bureau to do its part.

The full text of the resolution is:

WHEREAS, obtaining an accurate count of the population is so vital to representative democracy that the framers of the United States Constitution addressed the issue of the census and apportionment in the opening paragraphs of the Constitution; and

WHEREAS, the Massachusetts Constitution requires that federal census data be the basis for state redistricting; and

WHEREAS, the Census Bureau currently has a policy of counting incarcerated people at the address of the correctional institution, even though for other legal purposes their home address remains their legal residence; and

WHEREAS, this Census data results in distortions of the one-person, one-vote principle in drawing electoral districts in Massachusetts, diluting the representation of the majority of districts that do not contain prisons;

WHEREAS, the simplest solution to the conflict between federal constitutional requirements of "one person, one vote" and Massachusetts constitutional requirements of using the federal census is for the Census Bureau to publish redistricting data based on the location of an incarcerated person’s residence, not prison location; and

WHEREAS, the Census Bureau has already recognized the demand from states and counties for data that better reflects their actual populations, and has agreed to release data on prison populations to states in time for redistricting, enabling some states to individually adjust the population data used for redistricting; and

WHEREAS, Public Law 94-171 requires the Census Bureau to work with states to provide geographically relevant data and the Census Bureau has been responsive to state’s data needs for the past 3 decades; now therefore be it

RESOLVED, that the Massachusetts General Court hereby urges the Census Bureau, in the next Census and thereafter, to provide states with redistricting data that counts incarcerated persons at their residential address, rather than the address of the correctional institution where they are temporarily located; and be it further

RESOLVED, that a copy of these resolutions be transmitted forthwith by the Clerk of the Senate to the Director of Census Bureau.


by Aleks Kajstura, September 12, 2014

Massachusetts' joint resolution calling on the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at their home addressesToday, the Massachusetts legislature delivered its joint resolution to Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson.

The resolution urges the Census Bureau to provide the state with redistricting data that tabulates incarcerated people at their home addresses. By tabulating incarcerated people at their residential addresses, as called for in the resolution, the Bureau would create a national and permanent solution to prison gerrymandering.

September 8, 2014

Cranston, RI Lawsuit Will Move Forward

Providence, RI — Local Cranston residents and the ACLU of Rhode Island won a significant victory today in their fight for equal voting power in City elections when Judge Lagueux of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island denied a motion to dismiss their one person, one vote lawsuit, allowing their case to move forward.

“I’m thrilled this case is going forward,” said Karen Davidson, lead plaintiff. “As a Cranston resident and taxpayer I’m entitled to equal representation and I will keep fighting for it.”

At issue in the case is the City of Cranston’s choice to count the more than three thousand inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in a single city ward for the purposes of drawing City Council and School Committee districts. Plaintiffs argue this “prison gerrymandering” is improper because those incarcerated at the ACI are not true constituents of local elected officials, but instead remain residents of their pre-incarceration communities for virtually all legal purposes, including voting.

Due to the questionable counting, persons at the only state-run correctional facility in Rhode Island account for 25% of Ward 6’s total “population.” According to Census Bureau data, without the incarcerated population, Ward 6 has only 10,209 true constituents. Yet those constituents now wield the same political power as the roughly 13,300 constituents in each of the other wards. The lawsuit claims that this dilutes the voting strength and political influence of citizens residing outside of Ward 6, in violation of the Equal Protection requirements of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Lagueux agreed that this is a viable legal claim, stating that “…the inclusion of the ACI prison population is not advancing the principle of electoral equality because the majority of prisoners…cannot vote, and those who can vote are required by State law to vote by absentee ballot from their pre-incarceration address” and that the incarcerated population’s “inclusion in Ward Six does nothing to advance the principle of representational equality.”

“We’re excited our case is going forward, and we urge the City to correct its prison gerrymandering problem without delay,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “Unless the City acts promptly, Cranston will conduct the 2014 election under a one-person, three-quarters of a vote regime.”

Cranston residents Karen Davidson, Debbie Flitman, Eugene Perry, and Sylvia Weber have joined the ACLU of Rhode Island as plaintiffs in the case. They are represented in federal court by Demos, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This is a big win, because it shows that our legal arguments are valid,” said Adam Lioz of Demos, counsel for the plaintiffs. “We hope the City will fix the problem–but if not, we look forward to proving our case at trial: that persons incarcerated at the ACI aren’t really constituents of local politicians and so shouldn’t be counted at the prison for purposes of representation.”

“Counting people at the ACI as constituents of Ward 6 officials makes no sense,” said Aleks Kajstura of the Prison Policy Initiative. “They can’t use the park or library, attend a City Council meeting, or send their kids to public schools. And, even those who can vote must do so from their actual legal residence, not the prison location.”

“Prison gerrymandering distorts the process and runs counter to the core principle of one person, one vote,” said Sean Young, attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “All Cranston voters should have an equal say in who their elected officials are. When citizens exercise their fundamental right to vote, they expect that their vote will be counted equally, not as if it were only three-fourths of someone else’s vote.”

The case is Davidson et. al. v. City of Cranston. Plaintiffs’ complaint can be found here and their response to Defendant’s motion to dismiss is here. Judge Lagueux’s ruling is here.

Tweet this page Follow @PrisonPolicy on Twitter Get our newsletter Donate Contact Us

Meet us

Nothing scheduled right now. Invite us to to your city, college or organization or apply for an internship.


Nothing scheduled right now. Invite us to to your city, college or organization.