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.

by Aleks Kajstura, April 1, 2014

Today, Ed Fitzpatrick, political columnist for the Providence journal, tackled prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island:

[T]here’s nothing unusual about the fact that new Democratic House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello now wields more power than if he were simply representing part of Cranston.

But there is one unusual thing about Mattiello’s House district: 8.6 percent of the people in his district are inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions, and the vast majority of those inmates can’t vote for or against him, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, based in Easthampton, Mass.

“It’s representation without population,” said the group’s legal director, Aleks Kajstura. “Counting incarcerated people as if they were residents of the ACI undermines the principle of one person, one vote.”

According to 2010 Census data, the ACI in Cranston houses 3,433 inmates, and many of them are ineligible to vote because they’re behind bars for a felony conviction. About 1,000 of the inmates face misdemeanors or are awaiting trial and can still vote. But they must vote by absentee ballot using the address they had before they checked into A.T. Wall’s graybar hotel (as I like to call it)….

“[Mattiello] has a responsibility to fix this problem, especially now that he is speaker,” Prison Policy Initiative executive director Peter J. Wagner said Monday. “This is about fairness and what’s right for the state. It’s not one corner of Cranston. He has a responsibility to ensure all state residents equal representation in government.”

by Aleks Kajstura, March 20, 2014

The Boston Globe published an article by Johanna Seltz today taking a thorough look at how prison gerrymandering undermines democracy in Massachusetts:

It’s been called the purest form of democracy — the annual Massachusetts ritual of town meeting dating back to the 1630s — when neighbors get together to spend their community’s money and set its rules, arguing everything from whether to build a new school to how much to charge for trash disposal.

But as this spring’s town meeting season rolls in, a research group is questioning whether the institution is working as it should in communities that host prisons, including Billerica, Dedham, Framingham, Plymouth, and Walpole.

The Prison Policy Initiative in Easthampton says that voters in some precincts in those towns wield unfair power — with more town meeting members than they should have.

That’s because the US Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of their prison locations, rather than their home addresses, according to report author Aleks Kajstura. The method is used, she said, even though prisoners can’t vote in local elections.

…Walpole Town Clerk Ron Fucile said he’s been concerned for a while about the fairness of including the prisoners at the state MCI-Cedar Junction as part of the town’s precinct five. Earlier this month he successfully asked selectmen to reduce the number of Town Meeting seats in that precinct by one — adding it to another precinct.

“It’s more the way it ought to be,” Fucile said. He said he’d ultimately like the town charter changed to scrub the prison population altogether from the formula used to determine precinct seats. The number of prisoners fluctuates, but is usually about 700, he said.

“I also told the board it is time the Census Bureau and our Legislature come up with a law which addresses the prison being there,” he added.

In fact, pending legislation on Beacon Hill would “urge” the Census Bureau to use prisoners’ home addresses for redistricting purposes.

The bill, sponsored by Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz and Linda Dorcena Forry of Boston and Representative Thomas Stanley of Waltham, says that the current method “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.”

Study says prison population pads voter tally in some districts, by Johanna Seltz, Boston Globe

For more info, check out our Massachusetts page on ending prison gerrymandering in Massachusetts.

by Aleks Kajstura, March 4, 2014

The League of Women Voters of Virginia recently sent a letter to the Census Bureau, calling on the Bureau to end prison gerrymandering by counting incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses by the next Census.

For more info check out the League’s newsletter article onVirginia’s continuing struggles with prison gerrymandering, and our page tracking the Virginia campaign to end prison gerrymandering.

by Peter Wagner, February 26, 2014

thumbnail of fact sheet about prison gerrymandering in Connecticut

We’ve updated our fact sheet about prison gerrymandering in Connecticut, produced with Common Cause Connecticut. The fact sheet summarizes the findings of our 2013 report Imported “Constituents”: Incarcerated People and Political Clout in Connecticut:

  • Although almost every town in Connecticut had residents incarcerated elsewhere on Census Day, the majority of the state’s prison cells are in 5 small towns: Cheshire, East Lyme, Enfield, Somers, and Suffield.
  • The majority-white residents of 7 State House districts got significantly more representation in the legislature because each of their districts included at least 1,000 incarcerated African-Americans and Latinos from other parts of the state.
  • For example, State House District 59, (Enfield) claimed more than 3,300 African Americans and Latinos as constituents. But 72% of the African Americans and 60% of Latinos were not actually residents of the district, but rather were temporarily incarcerated in the Enfield, Willard and Robinson Correctional Institutions.
  • The dilution of African-American and Latino political power was not limited to the 59th district: 86% of the state’s prison cells are located in disproportionately white house districts.

The fact sheet is also available on our Connecticut campaign page.

by Leah Sakala, February 20, 2014

Yesterday we filed a lawsuit in partnership with Lynette Labinger of Roney & Labinger LLP and our colleagues at Demos and the ACLU Voting Rights project on behalf of the ACLU of RI and residents from the City of Cranston to combat extreme prison gerrymandering in the City Council and School Board districts. Here are a few great blog posts on the case:

  • ACLU Voting Rights Project Staff Attorney Sean Young cleverly illustrates why Cranston’s insistence on engaging in prison gerrymandering was particularly bad news for local residents:

    Imagine that you were treated as three-fourths of a person in every aspect of your daily life. When you want to binge-watch House of Cards on Netflix, you’re only allowed to watch the first three-fourths of the season. When you buy a cup of Starbucks coffee, you get three-fourths of a cup. When you get a paycheck, you’re paid three-fourths of what your coworkers are paid. And when you go into the polling booth to cast your vote, your vote is only counted as three-fourths of a vote.

    While the above illustrations are fictional, the last one is a reality for most of the voters in Cranston, Rhode Island. […] when Cranston residents from Wards 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 cast their votes in local elections, their votes are now worth only three-fourths of the same vote cast by someone from Ward 6.

  • Our long-time friend, colleague, and advisory board member Bruce Reilly also wrote a nice piece, pointing out that Rhode Island lawmakers could do their part by passing legislation to ensure that prison gerrymandering doesn’t skew democracy in the future:

    There is a reason that districts should be of similar population size, and its about ten people’s voices being the equivalent of ten people’s voices when making large decisions. Unless those people locked up in the ACI start getting their voice in the discussion, they are being used to puff up the district.

    Some states have already passed laws that eliminate this problem. Of course, if Rhode Island did so, the lawsuit would be moot.

  • Cranston isn’t the only local government that’s dealing with the implications of the Census Bureau’s prison count methodology. Residents in Walpole, Massachusetts, for example, are watching this suit closely to see what happens:

    In Walpole, the current town charter, based on the interpretation of the town’s legal counsel, counts prisoners at MCI-Cedar Junction as residents of Precinct 5, giving that precinct more political clout in Town Meeting. A recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative suggests that Town Counsel could use a different interpretation of the charter to stop counting inmates.

    If the Cranston suit succeeds, Walpole could face an expensive legal suit if the current practice of counting Cedar Junction prisoners continues. Selectmen should move full speed ahead with changing the charter to address this inequity, or use a different interpretation as suggested by the PPI.

We’ll be posting updates here on the Prisoners of the Census Blog as this case evolves, and you can also find case documents, coverage, and more on our Davidson v. City of Cranston case page. Stay tuned!

February 19, 2014

Plan violates ‘one person, one vote’ principle of the U.S. Constitution

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Steven Brown, ACLU of Rhode Island,, 401 831-7171
Alex Amend, Dēmos,, 917-822-7405
Aleks Kajstura, Prison Policy Initiative,, 413-527-0845
Inga Sarda-Sorensen, ACLU National,, 212-549-2666

CRANSTON, R.I. – Local residents joined the ACLU of Rhode Island today to sue the City of Cranston, charging that the 2012 redistricting plan for the City Council and School Committee violates the one person, one vote principle of the U.S. Constitution by counting incarcerated people in their prison location as if they were all residents of Cranston.

Because those incarcerated were counted as Cranston residents, three voters in the prison’s district have as much voting power as four voters in every other city district, according to Census Bureau data. 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 Dēmos, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Plaintiff Davidson said today: “As a long-time resident and taxpayer of Cranston, I am deeply concerned that the City Council decided in 2012 to perpetuate this voting inequity, especially after the ACLU pointed out the constitutional problems with it. It is time for city officials to show some leadership and stop wasting taxpayers’ money defending themselves from legal challenges like this.”

The 2012 redistricting plan counted the population of Rhode Island’s only state prison complex, the Adult Correctional Institutions, as residents of Ward 6 even though the overwhelming majority of these individuals are not true residents of the district, but instead remain residents of their pre-incarceration community for virtually all legal purposes, including voting.

“Using the people incarcerated at the ACI to pad the resident population of Ward 6 is not only irrational, but also unconstitutional. Over 200 municipalities and counties across the country actively avoid this ‘prison gerrymandering’ when redistricting,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director at the Prison Policy Initiative. “There is no reason for Cranston to give extra representation to a select group of residents just because they happen to live near a prison.”

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. This dilutes the voting strength and political influence of citizens residing outside of Ward 6, in clear violation of the Equal Protection requirements of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“The people incarcerated in Cranston cannot vote in local elections, visit with their elected officials, or use the public library,” said Adam Lioz, Demos counsel. “So, they should not be used to pad districts, skewing voting power in violation of the one person, one vote principle. The City Council should do the right thing and correct its redistricting process.”

“All the voters of Cranston should have an equal say in who their elected officials should be. When a citizen exercises their fundamental right to vote, they expect that their vote will be counted equally, not as if it were only three-fourths of another citizen’s vote. Cranston elected officials should stop playing games and restore fairness to the democratic system,” said Sean Young, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown said, “In 2012, the ACLU testified before the City Council and urged members to draw district lines in a way that would protect the principle of ‘one person-one vote.’ More than 200 counties and municipalities facing prison gerrymandering have pro-actively addressed the problem. It is unfortunate that the Cranston City Council refused to do so, leaving us no choice but to file this lawsuit.”

The complaint, Davidson v. City of Cranston, was filed in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island. A copy of the complaint is here:

The lawsuit is being handled locally by ACLU of RI volunteer attorney Lynette Labinger, who only two years ago in a highly-publicized case successfully sued Cranston officials over the display of a prayer banner in a high school auditorium.


by Aleks Kajstura, February 14, 2014

This week the New Jersey and Rhode Island state legislatures held hearings on their respective bills to end prison gerrymandering.

On Monday, the New Jersey Assembly Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Assembly Bill 659. After receiving testimony from the ACLU and PPI, the bill was successfully reported favorably out of committee.

The next day, Rhode Island’s Senate Bill 0147 was up for discussion before the Rhode Island Senate Committee on Judiciary. We submitted testimony in support of the bill and expect the committee to vote on the bill soon.

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