Peter Wagner, Executive Director
I need your help. For more than a decade, the Prison Policy Initiative has been at the forefront of the movement to expose how mass incarceration undermines our national welfare. With a lot of hard work and generous support from a small network of individual donors, we've won major civil rights victories in local governments, state legislatures and even the Supreme Court. But our long-term viability depends on people like you investing in our work.

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by Aleks Kajstura, July 1, 2014

The Anniston Star recently published a great article by Tim Lockette: Captive constituents: Prison population beefs up some Alabama districts.

Lockette explores how the Census Bureau’s decision to tabulate incarcerated people at the location of the correctional facilities impacts redistricting in Alabama:

article thumbnailWhen Talladega City Councilman Joseph Ballow goes up for re-election, he can be sure that more than a quarter of the residents in his ward won’t show up at the polls — because they’re behind bars.

One of five councilmen in this city of approximately 16,000, Ballow represents a 3,121-person ward that includes Talladega Federal Correctional Institution, a prison with 939 inmates.

“They can’t vote, they can’t carry a firearm, and I’m not interested in being their representative,” Ballow said.

Bellow’s attitude toward the folks incarcerated in his district is not unique, and it’s consistent with state law that says incarcerated people remain residents of their home address, and therefore constituents of the representatives of their home communities.

City and state officials say Talladega politicians typically see the prison as a burden.

“The question has always been, ‘Do we have to take it?,’” said Dawn Landholm, principal planner for the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, which has drawn district lines for many local cities, including Talladega’s ward lines after the 2000 Census.

Landholm said council members tend to feel cheated if they get a district that doesn’t include lots of actual registered voters. Council members have often asked if they can count only the voting-age population in drawing districts, she said.

“We’ve had to tell them they can’t just draw the district around voters,” Landholm said. “You have to take everybody.”

I agree with Landholm, districts should be based on actual population. And that means Talladega can follow the lead of over 200 local governments across the country that successfully avoid prison gerrymandering by removing the out-of-town-resident incarcerated population from their redistricting data. In fact it looks like some folks in town are already thinking about it:

Talladega City Manager Brian Muenger said he’s heard of other cities that discount the inmate population when drawing districts. He said he’d be open to proposing a similar option for Talladega.

The problem extends far beyond Talladega’s city wards. Prison gerrymandering impacts state legislative districts as well because the state replies on the same flawed Census data for redistricting:

The architect of Alabama’s post-2010 redistricting plan, Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, said the state did the best it could with the numbers it has.

Fair redistricting is hard enough without incarcerated populations being tabulated in the wrong place, so ideally the Census Bureau would change where it counts incarcerated people and provide states with redistricting data that reflects people at their actual home address. But in the meantime cities such as Talladega can adjust their redistricting data to exclude incarcerated populations, and Alabama can join California, Delaware, Maryland and New York by passing state-wide legislation to count people at home for redistricting purposes.

by Aleks Kajstura, June 25, 2014

thumbnail of articleOn Saturday, the Providence Journal published an op-ed by Fred Ordoñez, executive director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, calling on Rhode Island to end prison gerrymandering.

Ordoñez explained the severity of Rhode Island’s prison gerrymandering problem:

The concentration of all Rhode Island’s state prisons into just one location in the state makes the problem of prison gerrymandering in the state’s legislative districts more significant than in almost any other state. In most states, prison gerrymandering gives a small number of districts with prisons between 1 percent and 5 percent more political influence than is warranted by the number of actual residents of those districts.

Most states take such inequality seriously, and four states have already passed bills similar to the ones that were introduced in Rhode Island. And Rhode Island’s prison gerrymandering problem is larger than most; almost 15 percent of House District 20 is made up of incarcerated people from other parts of this state. This gives every group of 85 residents in this district the same influence as 100 residents in any other district.

Ending prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island would increase the voting strength of the 99.989 percent of the state’s residents who now have their votes diluted in at least one level of government (people who live closest to the prison get their votes inflated the most in City Council, House, and Senate districts).

When a bill was up for a vote in the Senate, senators representing the districts that contain the ACI were among those to cast their votes in support of the bill. Widespread support for a bill that would increase the voting strength of 99.989 percent of Rhode Island residents should not be surprising, but prison gerrymandering now has some powerful allies in the state. And unfortunately the bill faced an uphill battle in the House.

(Read the entire op-ed here.)

Unfortunately, the same day the op-ed was published the bill to end prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island, S 2286A, died in the House’s Judiciary Committee. But given the enthusiasm in the Senate, I’m sure the bill will be reintroduced again next session.

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.