With Governor Tim Walz's signature, the state is the latest to reject the Census Bureau’s flawed and outdated way of counting incarcerated people.

May 20, 2024

On Friday, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed HF 4772 — an omnibus elections policy bill — into law, officially ending prison gerrymandering in the state. With this action, Minnesota joins the rapidly growing list of states that have taken action on this issue. The measure requires state and local governments to count incarcerated people at their home addresses when drawing new political districts during their redistricting process.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau incorrectly counts incarcerated people as residents of their prison cells rather than their home communities. As a result, when states use Census data to draw new state or local districts, they inadvertently give residents of districts with prisons greater political clout than all other state residents.

“With this law, yet another state has rejected the Census Bureau’s flawed way of counting incarcerated people to ensure its residents have an equal voice in their government,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative and the head of the organization’s campaign to end prison gerrymandering. “Roughly half the country now lives in a place that has ended prison gerrymandering. With so many places taking action on this issue, it raises the question, ‘Will the Census Bureau listen to the growing consensus on this issue, or will it cling to its outdated and misguided way of counting people in prisons and jails in 2030?'”

map of states that have ended prison gerrymandering. Roughly half the country lives in a place that has ended the practice.

The provisions ending prison gerrymandering in the state were initially introduced as standalone measures and were rolled into this omnibus election bill.

Avoiding carveouts in prison gerrymandering reforms

Carveouts that exclude certain incarcerated people from bills to end prison gerrymandering undermine their impact and continue to distort democracy.

During the House debate on the measure, a representative introduced an amendment to limit the impact of the reforms by continuing to count people who have served ten consecutive years in prison or have over a decade remaining on their sentence at the prison. Fortunately, this poison-pill amendment was rejected, but it explains why other states considering similar reforms should also avoid this type of carveout.

Misguided amendments like this ignore the reality that, regardless of an incarcerated person’s sentence length, they are still not a member of the prison community. Additionally, nationally 75% of people in prison serve time in more than one facility, while 12% of people serve time in at least five facilities before returning home. These amendments also assume that a person will serve their full sentence and that sentencing policies or release mechanisms in a given state will remain static over a ten-year period, two things that are far from certain.

States shouldn’t undermine their own progress on this issue. When they end prison gerrymandering, they should ensure those reforms include all people incarcerated in the state’s prisons.

Most states have clauses in their constitutions or statutes that explicitly say that prisons are not a residence — whether someone is incarcerated away from home for a few months or a few decades — yet the Census Bureau continues to count people as if they are. The Census Bureau has the authority to change how it counts incarcerated people and officially end prison gerrymandering at the national level, but inaction has forced state and local officials to pass reforms and shoulder the burden of correcting flawed Census redistricting data to count incarcerated people at home.

In addition to Minnesota, eighteen other states — including “red” states like Montana, “blue” states like New York, and “purple” states like Maine — have recognized the impact of prison gerrymandering on political representation and have taken action to provide more equal representation to their residents. Progress on this issue has been so swift that the staunchly bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures recently called the movement to end prison gerrymandering “the fastest-growing trend in redistricting.”

With Minnesota adding itself to this rapidly growing trend, there is yet another reason for the Census Bureau to finally change how it counts incarcerated people and end prison gerrymandering nationwide.


Using an incarcerated person’s last known home address when redistricting gives the most accurate picture of where they reside.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 14, 2024

screenshot of the one pager Download our one-pager for a quick summary of the evidence that shows incarcerated people return home after their release.

Incarcerated people return to their home communities after release. That’s a fact that is obvious to anyone who lives in a community hard hit by mass incarceration. Yet when states seek to end prison gerrymandering by counting incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes, some people ask why we should use someone’s home address — concerned that they might not return to that exact place after release or even might stay in the prison town.

Unfortunately, because we can’t predict the future and because prisons and jails generally don’t track where people go after their release, this has been a hard question to answer. However, we collected several unique datasets to fill this gap and provide the best evidence possible of where people go after being released from prison. We found:

  • Incarcerated people don’t generally stay in the area of the prison after their release.
  • Incarcerated people almost always go back to the communities they came from — if not the exact address they lived at before their arrest.
  • Counting incarcerated people in prisons is likely the least accurate place to count them.

In theory, every legislative district within a state is supposed to have the same population to ensure everyone has equal representation from elected officials. However, the Census frustrates this goal by counting nearly 2 million incarcerated people as residents of the places in which they are detained instead of at their home addresses. The resulting Census data leads to “prison gerrymandering” — legislative districts that skew representation in favor of people who live near prisons and other correctional facilities.

To avoid prison gerrymandering, states have taken it upon themselves to count incarcerated people at home in their redistricting data. In practical terms, this means counting people at the pre-incarceration address on file with the Department of Corrections.

 

People don’t stay near the prison after release

There are two widely-accepted truths about mass incarceration:

  1. Black and Hispanic people are consistently overrepresented in prisons
  2. In most states, prisons are built in rural, largely-white communities.

With this in mind — along with the fact that more than half a million people enter and leave prison every year — you can conclude that if even a small portion of people stayed near the prison after release, those communities would, over time, begin to look similar to those on the inside, but that’s not the case.

In 2015, we released a report that explored the racial geography of mass incarceration. It showed that in 208 counties with prisons, the portion of the free population that was Black was at least 10 times smaller than the portion of the prison population that was Black. These trends were so strong, in fact, that we found 161 counties where the number of incarcerated Black people was actually bigger — by raw number — than the number of free Black people.

If people in prison stayed in those communities after their release, these dramatic disparities would not exist.

 

People go home after release

Unfortunately, while prison systems generally keep people’s home addresses on file, they don’t track whether they actually return to that address upon release. However, addresses for people on probation and parole can be a reasonably accurate proxy to fill this gap. That’s because a significant number of incarcerated people are on probation or parole after their release.

Comparing these two sets of addresses, we can get a sense of whether people return to where they came from after incarceration. If the portion of incarcerated people from an area is similar to the portion of people on probation or parole from that area, you can reasonably conclude that people are returning to their home communities after incarceration.

Rhode Island serves as a useful example for this analysis because all of its correctional facilities, including pre-trial facilities, are located in one correctional complex (in the city of Cranston). In most states, people are held pre-trial in jails, usually close to home, but in Rhode Island, they are incarcerated equally far from home, whether they are held for a few days or a few years.

We looked at the state’s probation and parole data for 2020 and compared it to the state’s 2020 redistricting data that counted incarcerated people at home.1

Percentage of people incarcerated or on
probation/parole in Rhode Island’s five largest cities
Municipality Percentage of incarcerated people from the city Percentage of people on probation or parole from the city
Providence 38.2% 33.0%
Pawtucket 11.9% 11.2%
Woonsocket 8.1% 8.2%
Cranston 7.6% 6.2%
Warwick 4.6% 5.4%

Examining this data for the five largest cities in the state, you see that the numbers align quite closely, reinforcing the fact that incarcerated people almost always return to their home communities after their release.

It is worth noting that Providence, the state’s biggest city, represented a larger portion of the incarcerated population than the probation/parole population. While some may be tempted to say this disproves our point, it is important to remember the context of this time period. The probation/parole data was from December 2020, at the pandemic’s peak, when many urban areas saw their populations dramatically decrease due to health and economic concerns and the desire for more space. Based on the patterns in the other communities, it is reasonable to conclude this data represents pandemic-era fluctuations and should be treated as such.

Importantly, you can also see more incarcerated people come from Cranston than are there while on probation and parole. This is another sign that most people don’t stay near the prison after incarceration unless they are from there originally.

These numbers aren’t a perfect match, which means that the exact address someone ends up at is sometimes different than the one they had on file while incarcerated. However, it clearly shows that people almost always return to their home communities after incarceration.

 

Prison is the least accurate place for the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people

Even if someone is unconvinced by the data showing that incarcerated people are likely to return to their home communities after their release, there are plenty of reasons — backed up by hard data — that make clear that by counting incarcerated people at prisons, the Census Bureau is choosing the least accurate option.

People are incarcerated further from home than most people choose to live

Over 60% of people in state prison are held at least 100 miles from their homes. Importantly, according to the Census Bureau, 80% of people in the U.S. who are of similar median age to the incarcerated population (roughly 30-years-old) still live within 100 miles of where they grew up.

When someone is incarcerated, they are moved far from their daily surroundings and usually locked up somewhere they never visit on their own — let alone live. They’ll likely never know anyone outside of the prison walls, nor rent a house, visit a business, or attend a community event there. So why would the Census Bureau decide this was their home?

People counted at the prison on Census Day aren’t likely there for long

There is a common misconception that a person in a prison will be in that facility for a long time — this is the mistaken belief that is the foundation of the Census Bureau’s choice to count incarcerated people there. But this simply isn’t true.

The average time served by people in state prison is 2.7 years, with this “average” pulled up by the few people serving very long sentences; the median time served is 15 months. Short stays in prison are common. For example, in Rhode Island, the median length of stay for people serving a sentence in the state’s correctional facilities is only 99 days. This means that most people counted at a state prison on Census Day will spend the vast majority of the next decade outside the prison walls.

Even people incarcerated away from home for a year or longer are not in one place. They move between multiple facilities. Nationally, 75% of people serve time in more than one prison facility, 12% of people serve time in at least five facilities before returning home. While they are being shuffled between facilities, incarcerated people maintain a usual residence elsewhere; their pre-incarceration home remains the only actual stable address.

 

A home address is the most accurate option

The home address someone has on file with the Department of Corrections may not be the exact place they return to after incarceration. However, it is a close approximation of where they reside through and after incarceration. While some of these address records may vary in precision, the one address we know is wrong is the facility address.

States that adjust their redistricting data to count incarcerated people at home use the home addresses contained in their Departments of Corrections records. This practice creates redistricting data that better reflects the populations of communities hardest hit by mass incarceration and communities that contain large prison populations. The Census Bureau should count incarcerated people at home in the 2030 Census using home address data as the states have done.

Grab our one-pager about this issue at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/factsheets/home_addresses_one_pager.pdf.

 
 

Footnotes

  1. The Probation and Parole data is from December 2020 and the redistricting data is from April 2020 — these are the closest dates available. While the distribution of people in prison in April 2020 geocoded to their hometowns is not a perfect match to the hometowns of people on probation and parole in December 2020, it is close enough to draw some conclusions. It clearly shows that the towns where incarcerated people come from are the same towns where incarcerated people go after release.  ↩


States should consider new race and ethnicity standards when preparing to implement prison gerrymandering reform in the 2030 redistricting cycle

by Danielle Squillante, April 29, 2024

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently announced changes to how federal agencies will collect race and ethnicity data, the first change to these rules since 1997. We and other civil rights groups welcomed these changes because they will present a more nuanced and accurate depiction of the racial and ethnic diversity of the country. The Census Bureau will be following these new standards for the 2030 Census, and so these changes should also prompt states — both those that have ended prison gerrymandering and those that are considering taking that step — to change how they track race and ethnicity data for people in their prisons.

 

What are the changes and why do they matter?

The new rules do two primary things to the Census count:

  • Combine race and ethnicity categories into one question: This better aligns with the way people identify themselves — for example, it gives people the option to choose Latino or Hispanic as a racial category, rather than just ethnicity.
  • Add Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) as a new racial category: Previously people of Middle Eastern or North African descent were aggregated into the white category against their wishes.

 

How will this impact prison gerrymandering reforms in states?

These changes present some challenges — and opportunities — for states that have ended, or are considering ending, prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem the Census Bureau created by counting incarcerated people as residents of their prison cells rather than in their home communities. This artificially inflates the populations of areas that contain prisons, giving them additional political clout when state and local governments use this Census data to draw new district lines every ten years. In states that have ended prison gerrymandering, state officials adjust their redistricting data to count people in prison at their pre-incarceration address, giving a more accurate picture of the area’s population and more equal representation in government.

To address prison gerrymandering, states take the data provided by the Census Bureau and cross-reference it against data collected by their Department of Corrections to reallocate incarcerated people back to their home communities before they draw new political boundaries. Importantly, when drawing these new maps, they not only consider the number of people in a district, but also who the residents of that area are. This is largely to comply with state and federal Voting Rights Acts and constitutional protections to ensure the ability of Black communities — and other racial and ethnic groups — to elect representatives of their choice.

In an ideal world, states and the Census Bureau would track race and ethnicity data in the same way. It would make it easier and more efficient for states to match Census data to their state data when adjusting redistricting data counting incarcerated people in their home communities. However, as the National Conference of State Legislatures reported last year, that’s not the case. Of the states that ended prison gerrymandering after the 2020 redistricting cycle, only one state’s Department of Corrections used the same race and ethnicity categories as the Census Bureau.

States that currently track race and ethnicity differently than the Census Bureau, will still have to do the work to make their data and the Bureau’s data compatible. However, these states should consider these Census changes as an opportunity to improve their data collection and make it more compatible with the Bureau’s data. Here’s how:

  • States should reform how they collect race and ethnicity data to conform with the updated Office of Management and Budget standards to make comparing data easier for reallocation purposes;
  • States should provide opportunities for incarcerated people to self-report race and ethnicity data whenever possible to ensure accuracy in the data they collect. When that is not possible, at the very least the Department of Correction should disclose how that data is collected.

Regardless, these new standards do not stand in the way of ending prison gerrymandering.

Roughly half of all U.S. residents now live in a city, county, or state that has ended prison gerrymandering, with more almost certain to join them before the 2030 redistricting cycle. That raises the important question: Instead of forcing states to keep up with the Bureau’s changing data collection and reporting, why not finally change how it counts incarcerated people in 2030?


U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick said current maps deprive Black residents of political representation.

by Mike Wessler, March 27, 2024

Last month, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick struck down Louisiana’s state legislative districts, noting that they unfairly deprived Black residents of political representation in violation of the Voting Rights Act. She ordered the state to draw new legislative maps to resolve this issue.

Importantly, in her ruling, Judge Dick noted how the over-incarceration of Black people harms their ability to engage with their government, saying:

“The preponderance of the evidence proved that Black voters’ participation in the political process is impaired by historic and continuing socio-economic disparities in education, employment, housing, health and criminal justice.”

While the judge did not specifically cite prison gerrymandering in her ruling, it is an issue that makes the inequalities at the heart of the case even worse. Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the wrong place — a prison cell — rather than their actual homes. When state governments then use the Bureau’s data to draw new legislative maps during their redistricting process, they inadvertently give residents who live closest to prisons greater political clout at the expense of everyone else.

When the Louisiana legislature convenes to draw new legislative districts to comply with the Judge’s order, its maps should address the injustice of prison gerrymandering.

 

Prison gerrymandering diminishes Black political representation in Louisiana

Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world, locking up not only a greater share of its residents than any other state in the country but also more than any nation on the planet. So it should come as no surprise that prison gerrymandering has stark consequences in the state.

A unique dataset, which we gathered with the help of Louisiana-based Voice of the Experienced and Redistricting Data Hub, gives us a more precise look at how this plays out.1 Most importantly, we can see that incarcerated people come from all over the state. This matters because under the current flawed way the Census Bureau treats incarcerated people, the 26,000+ people in state custody are counted in just a handful of state prisons, dramatically inflating the population of those communities — and, with it, their political clout.

map of Louisiana showing incarceration rate by census tract

This data shows that prison gerrymandering robs nearly every state legislative district and its residents of some of their political voice. This political clout is then given to those districts that contain prisons.

While nearly every community is harmed by prison gerrymandering, that pain is not felt equally. Louisiana has stark racial disparities in its prisons. Black residents account for 32% of the state’s population, but they account for 66% of the people in state prisons.

  • racial and ethnic disparities between the prison/jail and general population in LA as of 2021
  • 2021 graph showing incarceration rates per 100,000 people of various racial and ethnic groups in Louisiana

Slideshow 1. Racial disparities in Louisiana prisons are stark. Learn more by visiting our Louisiana state profile page.

With such dramatic disparities in incarceration in the state, it is clear that prison gerrymandering is undermining Black political representation in Louisiana.

 

Prison gerrymandering gives two majority-white districts a particularly loud voice in government

Because of prison gerrymandering, people in Louisiana who happen to live close to state prisons get more political clout at the expense of every other resident of the state.

In Louisiana, two majority-white districts particularly benefit from this dynamic. First is House District 22, which contains a federal prison in Pollock. The other is House District 18, home to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola Prison.

In each of these places, incarcerated people make up more than 11% of the district population. As a result, 89 actual residents of these districts have the same political clout as 100 residents of any district in the state without a prison.

Two majority-white districts in Louisiana benefit the most from prison gerrymandering, at the expense of every other district in the state.
Percentage of the district population that is incarcerated Percentage of the district population that is white (non-Hispanic)
House District 22 11.73% 62%
House District 18 11.36% 62%

Addressing prison gerrymandering will correct this imbalance and ensure that residents of these districts get the same voice in government — no more and no less — as every other resident of the state.

 

Louisiana’s embrace of failed, punitive criminal legal system policies shows why prison gerrymandering matters

At its core, the failure of Louisiana to address prison gerrymandering is an issue of political representation. However, this isn’t simply an academic exercise about ensuring everyone has an equal voice. It has real and dramatic consequences. To see this, you have to look no further than the recently ended special session of the Louisiana legislature.

The state’s new governor called the special session under the guise of focusing on crime despite the evidence that crime is at its lowest levels in roughly 60 years. During the session, lawmakers passed a slew of regressive policies that will increase prison populations and make the criminal legal system more punitive, including effectively eliminating parole, trying more young people as adults, and expanding the use of the death penalty.

It is reasonable to conclude that lawmakers who benefit politically from prison gerrymandering and the state’s large prison population have a strong incentive to protect and even grow this advantage by supporting the type of punitive criminal legal system policies passed during the special session. On the other hand, lawmakers who represent districts that have large numbers of residents in state prisons are more likely to seek solutions to the root causes of incarceration, such as poverty and untreated mental health and substance use issues. This conclusion was borne out during the special session when the two lawmakers who represent House Districts 22 and 18 — and benefit most from prison gerrymandering — supported all of the new draconian changes to the criminal legal system.

Addressing prison gerrymandering will help to disrupt this incentive toward bad policy and ensure every resident gets an equal say in government.

 

Now is the time for Louisiana to end prison gerrymandering

Eighteen states — including “red” states like Montana, “blue” states like New York, and “purple” states like Maine — have recognized the injustice of prison gerrymandering and rejected the flawed Census data. Instead, they took it upon themselves to correct the redistricting data to provide more equal representation to their residents. Progress on this issue has been so swift that the staunchly bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures recently called the movement to end prison gerrymandering “the fastest-growing trend in redistricting.”

Louisiana should join this rapidly growing list.

We don’t yet know when the legislature will take action in response to the court ruling, and the judge did not set a clear timeframe for when they must act. However, when they do, their maps should address the problem of prison gerrymandering. Failure to act would mean that residents of the state — particularly Black residents — will continue to have their political representation diminished until at least 2031.

 
 

Footnotes

  1. This analysis only includes data on the people incarcerated in state prisons in Louisiana. It does not include information on people held at the two federal prisons in the state.  ↩


New analysis shows that the Census’ flawed way of counting incarcerated people is increasingly harming rural areas — and both political parties.

by Aleks Kajstura and Mike Wessler, February 26, 2024

The 2020 redistricting cycle was a turning point in the effort to end prison gerrymandering. Fixing the Census Bureau’s flawed way of counting incarcerated people was once considered a niche issue, but after 2020 is now “the fastest-growing trend in redistricting,” according to the fiercely bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

We previously looked at the experiences of states that have addressed prison gerrymandering after the 2020 Census. We wanted to also see what happened in states that haven’t fixed this problem to see what it tells us about how this issue plays out across the country as we look toward the 2030 count.

To do this, we examined the ten state legislative districts1 where, according to Census data, people held at correctional facilities account for the largest percentage of the district population.

These ten worst prison gerrymanders in the nation show the problem is increasingly harming residents of rural states and defying some of the preconceived notions about partisan impacts.

The 10 Worst Prison Gerrymanders After 2020 Redistricting
State District Percent of district’s Census population incarcerated What party holds the seat?
New Hampshire House District Merrimack 17 49.5% Democratic
West Virginia House District 83 18.4% Republican
Mississippi House District 47 17.7% Democratic
Mississippi House District 68 16.6% Democratic
Oklahoma House District 56 14.0% Republican
Wyoming House District 2 13.6% Republican
Mississippi House District 26 13.6% Democratic
Arkansas House District 65 13.5% Democratic
West Virginia House District 45 12.6% Republican
South Carolina House District 73 12.0% Democratic

 

Rural states bear the burden of the Census Bureau’s error

This analysis shows that prison gerrymandering is a problem increasingly harming residents in some of the most rural states. While some might be tempted to chalk this up to the political dynamics of those states — we explain later in this piece why this seems increasingly unlikely — the truth is this is likely more a reflection of the Census Bureau shifting its responsibilities to over-burdened state governments and the series of trade-offs this forces states to make.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem created by the Census Bureau. Every ten years, it erroneously counts incarcerated people at the location of the facility they happen to be on Census Day rather than in their home communities. When state and local governments use this data for redistricting, they inadvertently give communities that contain prisons greater political clout at the expense of everyone else.

If states want to draw fairer districts by ending prison gerrymandering, they have to take on the task of fixing the flawed Census Bureau data to count incarcerated people at their true homes. This takes time, effort, and money, three rare and valuable commodities during redistricting.

To be clear, fixing prison gerrymandering is not a hugely expensive endeavor.2 But state budgets are a series of trade-offs and compromises. If lawmakers have the chance to spend even a few thousand dollars on direct services to their residents or can use that money to fix the Census Bureau’s mistake that caused prison gerrymandering, which do you think they’re likely to choose?

The experience of Montana, a state that has addressed prison gerrymandering despite its comparably small budget, shows the budgetary tricks or luck that states have to rely on to fix this Census Bureau mistake. During the 2020 redistricting cycle, commissioners in that state were unanimous in their desire to address prison gerrymandering, but it almost did not happen because they didn’t have the money to adjust the Census redistricting data to count incarcerated people at home. Ultimately, they could only implement this change because COVID-related restrictions meant that they could use money initially allocated for travel instead to end prison gerrymandering.

Some might be tempted to ask, “Why should the Census Bureau take on this effort instead of the places that want to change the data?” The simple fact is that the Census Bureau has a duty to provide states with redistricting data fit for use — a duty that the emerging consensus among states shows they are not meeting. State and local governments have been loud and clear, they want the Bureau to fix this problem.

Roughly half of all U.S. residents now live in a city, county, or state that has ended prison gerrymandering, with more almost certain to join them before the 2030 redistricting cycle. The Bureau’s stubborn refusal to change how it counts incarcerated people is a liability for a rapidly growing swath of the country and a disincentive for more places to join their ranks.

Additionally, it is important to remember that apart from any concerns about taking on additional burdens and redistricting time, states can only partially solve the problem. Prison gerrymandering is a national problem that crosses jurisdictional boundaries. No city, county, or state can completely fix this issue on its own. Only the Census Bureau can fully solve this problem nationwide.

 

Prison gerrymandering is not a partisan issue

Redistricting is notoriously contentious, with politicians working to gain leverage for their party in state houses.

While some have sought to paint the effort to end prison gerrymandering as a partisan tool in those fights, this analysis firmly busts that myth. These data show that both parties are harmed by prison gerrymandering.

Of these ten districts, six are districts controlled by Democrats, while Republicans control four. Notably, the district most distorted by a prison, New Hampshire’s Merrimack 17, is currently held by a Democrat. Prison gerrymandering distorts this district so severely that residents there have twice the political clout of residents of any other district in the state without a prison.

This is the latest piece of evidence that prison gerrymandering reform regularly defies traditional political expectations:

This analysis makes clear that neither political party is a guaranteed winner in prison gerrymandering. But, the clear loser in prison gerrymandering is every resident who doesn’t live in a legislative district with a prison.

 

What does this data tell us about 2030?

The 2030 Census may seem far away, but the Bureau has already begun planning for the count. It will likely decide where to count incarcerated people in the next two to three years.

This new analysis, which shows that the burden to correct flawed Census data increasingly falls on rural states and that prison gerrymandering is an issue that defies traditional partisan assumptions, should weigh heavily on their decision.

As we wait for the Census Bureau to decide, state lawmakers — particularly in these states with the worst prison gerrymanders — should start laying the groundwork to fix this problem should the Bureau fail to act. This means passing legislation now to ensure the state has the data and expertise it needs to successfully implement reform to end prison gerrymandering during the 2030 redistricting cycle.

 
 

Footnotes

  1. This analysis is based on districts as they stood after the initial redistricting period after the 2020 Census. Some of these states may have adjusted their districts since then.  ↩

  2. It is important to note that, if a state ends prison gerrymandering does not change how the federal government allocates funding to that state. Ending prison gerrymandering impacts political representation, not funding.  ↩


Courts in Michigan and Wisconsin have stuck down their legislative maps, providing a rare mid-decade opportunity to immediately end prison gerrymandering.

by Mike Wessler, January 17, 2024

While most people around the country were focused on the festivities of the holiday season, courts in two states — Michigan and Wisconsin — ordered them to redraw their legislative districts after they were ruled unconstitutional. This move provides each state with a rare opportunity to address prison gerrymandering in the middle of a decade, rather than waiting for the next Census.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem created by the Census Bureau. During its tally every decade, it erroneously counts incarcerated people as residents of prison cells, rather than in their home communities, artificially inflating the population of prison towns. When states then use this data to draw new legislative districts, areas that contain prisons get additional political clout, at the expense of everyone else.

More than a dozen states have taken action to fix the Census Bureau’s error — including “red” states like Montana and “blue” states like California. Momentum on this issue has been so swift, in fact, that the fiercely bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures recently called it “the fastest-growing trend in redistricting.” Roughly half the country now lives in a place that has addressed the problem.

The court-ordered redistricting in Michigan and Wisconsin gives each state a chance to join this growing movement, but they have to act fast.

 

Michigan’s chance to address racial disparities

In late December, federal judges ruled that 13 Detroit-area state legislative districts unfairly diluted the political clout of Black residents, and ordered the state’s independent redistricting commission to redraw them for the 2024 elections. Commissioners have until February 2 to produce new maps.

While the court only explicitly ordered that 13 districts be redrawn, changing the lines of these districts will almost certainly have statewide ripple effects.

Because the court ruling involved the dilution of Black representation, it is important to remember the disproportionate impact that prison gerrymandering has on Black residents in the state. Black residents are 13% of the state’s population but 51% of the people in state prisons. As a result of this disparity and the state’s failure to address prison gerrymandering, Black political representation across Michigan is being unfairly diluted.

As the redistricting commission draws new districts, it should address prison gerrymandering to return some political clout to Black communities in the state. In addition, the legislature should adopt Sen. Sylvia Santana’s bill to end prison gerrymandering in the state permanently. The state already prohibits prison gerrymandering in local government districts; ending it in state legislative districts is the next logical step.

 

Wisconsin’s opportunity to draw more fair districts

The day after Michigan’s districts were struck down, the state Supreme Court in neighboring Wisconsin also struck down that state’s legislative maps. Wisconsin has long been considered one of the most politically gerrymandered states in the nation. This order provides an opportunity to draw fair Wisconsin maps for the first time in decades.

Addressing prison gerrymandering won’t solve all of the issues with Wisconsin’s current legislative districts, but it will be a meaningful step toward ensuring fairer representation in the state.

Is there enough time for these states to address prison gerrymandering?

Time is tight, but there is an quick — albeit imperfect — solution to address the worst impacts of prison gerrymandering.

Both of these states are unquestionably working on tight timeframes. Some will question whether they have the time or data necessary to fully address prison gerrymandering in these new legislative maps.

Ending prison gerrymandering completely by counting incarcerated people in their home districts is obviously the preferred solution, but mapmakers in these states shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There is a simple — albeit partial — solution that can address the most distortive impacts of prison gerrymandering and can be implemented quickly, even if the states don’t have address data for people in prison.

Here’s how this solution works. When drawing new maps, instead of counting incarcerated people as residents of the district that contains the prison, mapmakers reallocate this population statewide. While this will not fully return political representation to the communities most impacted by incarceration, it will ensure that communities that contain prisons don’t get a dramatically outsized voice in government.

For example, in Wisconsin’s Assembly District 53, roughly 8% of people counted in that district are incarcerated and live outside of that area. That means that 92 residents of that district have the same political sway as 100 residents in any other district that doesn’t have a prison. Ending prison gerrymandering will ensure that residents of this district don’t get a louder voice in government, simply because they live near a prison.

Recognizing that the governor and state legislature would be unlikely to reach a consensus on new maps, the court appointed two experts to review the submitted maps. They can then either alter the submissions or produce their own maps that resolve the court’s concerns. Notably, these experts have helped Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York — three states that have addressed prison gerrymandering — draw their current legislative districts. Since these two experts already understand this issue and the ways to solve it, the final maps they propose should address prison gerrymandering to the fullest extent possible.

 

Failure to act means at least eight more years of prison gerrymandering

Redistricting officials in these two states have a lot of work ahead of them, and not much time to do it in. Ending prison gerrymandering in the state should be near the top of their list of priorities.

We’re hopeful that the Census Bureau will fix its prison gerrymandering mistake in the 2030 count. But Michigan and Wisconsin don’t have to wait that long to fix their prison gerrymandering problem. They have an opportunity to end prison gerrymandering while addressing problems with their state legislative maps right now. They should take advantage of it.


Jazz was a driving force for ending the disenfranchisement of incarcerated people and a powerful ally in our efforts to combat prison gerrymandering.

by Peter Wagner, January 12, 2024

On Saturday, January 6, voting rights pioneer and Prison Policy Initiative Advisory Board member Joseph “Jazz” Hayden passed away. He will be missed.

While Jazz Hayden was incarcerated in New York State, he developed a lawsuit arguing that the New York State’s disenfranchisement of incarcerated people violated the federal Voting Rights Act. He filed the first version of this lawsuit himself, and after his release, he recruited the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to take the case, then called Hayden v Pataki. While not directly successful, the lawsuit sparked a public movement and led to New York restoring the right to vote to people on parole. (New York restored these rights by executive order in 2018 and then by law in 2021.)

I first met Jazz at a conference in the summer of 2003, shortly after I published our first report on prison gerrymandering, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York. Jazz was a powerful and helpful ally. Building on his work to end disenfranchisement of incarcerated people, he often talked about how barring incarcerated people from the polls was related to but distinct from the implications of counting incarcerated people in the wrong location for the purposes of redistricting. Both problems reduce the political power of communities of color and further encourage more prison expansion; but the solutions were separate. At the early stages of both movements, it was invaluable to have Jazz’s endorsement on our Advisory Board to help us explain the relationship of these two issues to our growing list of allies and supporters.

Jazz had other impacts on the criminal legal system and it seems fitting to highlight one of his lesser-known but long-lasting contributions. And through his campaign against police brutality in New York City — which will surely be chronicled by others — Jazz developed a lot of camera skills which he applied to our 2005 report about the for-profit video “visitation” industry. With his efforts, we were able to take the first steps towards successfully convincing the public and policymakers that grainy, glitchy video chats could not be considered a replacement for in-person visits in prisons and jails. That industry’s growth has been slowed, and in early 2023 Congress gave the Federal Communications Commission formal jurisdiction over the industry.

I encourage you to also read this statement from the Legal Defense Fund, which highlights more of Jazz’s important work.

We’ll miss you Jazz.


Report highlights growing bipartisan support for counting incarcerated people in their home communities.

by Mike Wessler, November 9, 2023

A new report from CHARGE (the Coalition Hub for Advancing Redistricting & Grassroots Engagement), a coalition of good-government groups working to improve the redistricting process, makes clear that ending prison gerrymandering has quickly gone from an emerging issue done by only a handful of states, to being among the gold-standard redistricting practices.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the wrong place — a prison cell — rather than in their home communities. When state and local governments use this data to draw new government districts every decade, they inadvertently give more political clout to districts that contain prisons, at the expense of everyone else.

The report is based on hundreds of interviews and surveys that members of CHARGE conducted with advocates and organizations involved in the redistricting process in each state. It gave every state’s redistricting process a grade from “A-” to “F”. In addition to addressing prison gerrymandering, these grades are also based on best practices related to transparency, opportunities for public input, the willingness of decision-makers to draw districts based on that input, adherence to nonpartisanship, empowerment of communities of color, and policy choices.

Several key findings related to prison gerrymandering emerge from the report:

  • Prison gerrymandering reforms have become increasingly nonpartisan: The report notes that in Montana, which it gave a B grade, “(d)espite a polarized atmosphere in which commissioners of different parties were unable to agree on final maps, the (Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission’s) vote to end prison gerrymandering was unanimous and bipartisan.”
  • States that addressed prison gerrymandering received some of the highest grades: 15 states received a grade of B- or higher; seven of them (California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Washington) had already taken action to address prison gerrymandering. Another state in this group, Maine, has since also passed legislation for the 2030 redistricting cycle.

This report follows a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which looked at states’ experiences ending prison gerrymandering during the 2020 redistricting cycle. In an accompanying briefing, the organization notes that ending prison gerrymandering is “the fastest-growing trend in redistricting.”

While the best way to address prison gerrymandering is for the Census Bureau to change how it counts incarcerated people, these reports show that states can and should take action to address the problem on their own. And, even though the 2030 redistricting process is still several years away, now is the ideal time for them to do so. Passing legislation now will ensure states have the data and process in place to take on this task after the 2030 count, it will also add their voices to the growing chorus calling on the Census Bureau to change its outdated policy.

These two reports, when taken together, highlight the need — and growing bipartisan calls — for the Census Bureau to finally take steps to end prison gerrymandering nationwide. As the 2030 count draws closer, it remains to be seen whether the Bureau will get an A or an F on this easy test.


New national op-ed shows the growing bipartisan calls for the Census Bureau to finally fix how it counts incarcerated people.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 30, 2023

The need to end prison gerrymandering is “obvious to anyone who looks at the facts.” That’s the conclusion of a bipartisan duo of Montana lawmakers, Sen. Shane Morigeau and Sen. Jason Small, in an op-ed published this week in The Hill.

Thanks to a bill sponsored by Morigeau and supported by Small, Montana is among the growing list of states that have ended the practice of prison gerrymandering. Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau incorrectly counts incarcerated people as residents of their prison cells rather than their home communities. When states use this flawed Census data to draw new legislative districts, they inadvertently give residents of districts with prisons greater political clout than all other state residents. Montana’s actions limited that injustice in the state.

In the piece, the lawmakers explain the unique ways prison gerrymandering harms residents, particularly communities of color, indigenous people, and low-income individuals:

This power shift has dramatic policy impacts. A community with a high incarceration rate is more likely to support policies that address mass incarceration’s root causes — poverty, substance use and untreated mental health issues. But prison gerrymandering dilutes the voices of these communities, weakening their influence on lawmakers. Ending prison gerrymandering will ensure these communities have an equal voice in policymaking.

In Montana, there was wide bipartisan agreement that the Census Bureau gets it wrong when it comes to counting incarcerated people, which is why there was such a commitment to addressing the issue. The state’s independent redistricting commission was the first to tackle the problem for the 2020 redistricting cycle. Because of the tight timeframe and specialized knowledge needed, it had to hire — at taxpayer expense — outside experts to fix the census data to count incarcerated people at their true homes. And the state’s legislature followed suit, making the practice permanent, even if the Bureau fails to fix the problem once again.

The Senators highlighted the broad support for this change, “Despite [these challenges], the bipartisan commission got it done. Our legislature — controlled by a Republican supermajority — overwhelmingly voted with Democrats to make this change permanent, and our Republican governor signed it into law. ”

Morigeau and Small also call out the Census Bureau for selectively applying its residence rule to harm some of the country’s most disadvantaged people:

As its rationale for counting incarcerated people in the wrong place, the bureau cites its “usual residence rule,” which says they count people where they eat and sleep on most days. This sounds reasonable until you realize the bureau treats incarcerated people differently than others in similar situations. For example, it counts students at boarding schools at their home addresses, but children in juvenile correctional facilities are counted where they are detained, even though two-thirds of them will be there for less than six months.

Finally, the lawmakers ask the inescapable question: “With so many places clamoring for this change and more likely to join their ranks by 2030, why does the Census Bureau still force state and local governments to jump through hoops and spend money to fix a problem it created?” And they exhort the Bureau to fix the problem, stating that ” …ending prison gerrymandering should be near the top of its list of changes” for the 2030 census.

This op-ed is the latest evidence of the growing, bipartisan desire for the Census Bureau to fix how it counts incarcerated people. The question remains: will the Bureau listen?


In the first public comment period about the 2030 Census count, dozens of people called on the Bureau to end prison gerrymandering. We pulled together their comments, which show why this change is necessary, and the consequences of inaction.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 17, 2023

2030 is still years away, but the Census Bureau has already begun planning for the next decennial count. Last year, in one of the first steps of the 2030 Census, the Bureau asked for public input on ways to improve the process.

To anyone who has followed the growing, bipartisan momentum on the issue, it will come as no surprise that prison gerrymandering was a frequent topic of public comment. Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people in the wrong place, a prison cell, rather than at their true homes. This practice artificially inflates the populations of areas that contain prisons, giving these areas additional political clout when state and local governments use this Census data to draw new district lines every ten years.

The Bureau received dozens of comments on the topic from a diverse swath of people that are part of the nationwide momentum to end prison gerrymandering. (We already shared our comments, and a letter signed by 35 other criminal justice and voting rights organizations in November.)

The Census Bureau made these comments public, and we poured through them to understand what people were saying about this issue. These comments offer a rare opportunity to hear, in their own words, from incarcerated people, their families, advocates, and government officials about how the Bureau’s flawed way of counting incarcerated people exacerbates racial disparities, undermines our democracy, burdens state and local governments, and treats incarcerated people in a unique and unfair way.

 

Personal impact

The Census is a massive public undertaking, but it is also very personal. The Census counts over 300 million people, collects them into population totals, and publishes them as data tables that are fed into computers for redistricting. But getting counted correctly is still personal. By counting incarcerated people in the wrong place, the Bureau purposefully miscounts each of the 2 million people who are incarcerated on any given day.

As a member of Essie Justice Group, an organization representing women with incarcerated loved ones, explained in her comments counting incarcerated people in the wrong place disregards family connections:

Please end Prison Gerrymandering and count people for the next census in their homes, not where they serve in prison…. My loved one was in 3 prisons in 5 years. It is inaccurate to say he lived in any of them. He lived and now lives again home with his family.

And a formerly incarcerated person in St. Louis, Missouri, explained it ignores where incarcerated people themselves say they reside:

[D]uring the last census I was in Forest City Federal Prison. They never provided any of the prisoners census forms. So, I’m not sure if I was counted, but if I was, the information that they provided wouldn’t have been accurate. I feel that all prisoners should be accurately counted and counted toward where they came from, not where the prison is located.

Most incarcerated people are not given the chance to fill out a Census form. They are excluded from participation and know they cannot trust the Bureau to count them at home. When people perceive that this data doesn’t accurately reflect the true population and demographics, it erodes trust in the Census as a whole. If some individuals believe their communities are not adequately represented, they become skeptical of the entire process, which erodes trust in the Census in the very communities that it itself designates as hard to count.

 

Disparate racial impact

Rather than simply reflecting the racial inequality in society, by counting incarcerated people in the wrong place, the Census perpetuates and exacerbates existing systemic inequalities in society. By not accurately reflecting where incarcerated people live, the Census reinforces the marginalization of communities of color, skews representative power, and perpetuates the cycle of mass incarceration by hindering efforts to address broader issues of racial injustice and inequality within the criminal justice system.

In its comments, Fair Count, a Georgia-based advocacy organization that works to build long-term power in communities that have been historically undercounted in the census, offered suggestions on how the Bureau can address this problem:

Black people make up 38% of the incarcerated population, but only 13% of the general United States population. Considering the disproportionate rate of Black people that are likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime compared to White people and other people of color, it is especially critical to assess how data can be gathered fairly and accurately for this vulnerable population. The Census Bureau can partner with states that have already agreed to re-allocate Census data from incarcerated individuals back to their home addresses which entails mailing census forms directly to the incarcerated individuals for self-response. The goal would be to obtain more quality, accurate data on incarcerated individuals than incomplete, inaccurate data submitted to Census via administrative prison rosters.

Similarly, noting that there is a differential undercount of Black people in the Census, Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a Louisiana-based organization working to reform the criminal legal system, points out in its comments that changing the way it counts incarcerated people could provide further opportunities for the Bureau to improve its data:

One reason that these undercounts exist is that … census data about those who are incarcerated is gathered by prison officials, rather than those who are actually imprisoned. It is widely understood that incarceration rates in the United States disproportionately impact people of color. … In turn, the census data that is gathered by prison officials fails to accurately reflect demographic statistics concerning issues such as the sex and race of those behind bars.

For instance, the Louisiana Department of Corrections demographic data on race is inaccurate as it only accounts for individuals who are “black” or “white.” …. There are no distinctions for incarcerated residents with other ethnicities and races such as American Indian, Asian and/or Asian American, and/or Hispanic. In addition, the DOC data on sex is reflective of an incarcerated individual’s sex at birth, and thus fails to account for individuals who are transgender.

Therefore, in order to truly reach everyone, the US Census needs to adjust the way that gathers data about those who are incarcerated by allowing this country’s incarcerated population to participate in the census.

 

Failure to meet state and local redistricting data needs

State and local government progress toward ending prison gerrymandering has been fast. Today, roughly half the country lives in a place that has addressed the practice. Progress has been so swift, in fact, that the National Conference of State Legislatures, a strictly bipartisan organization that assists state lawmakers on a wide range of policy issues, recently called it “the fastest-growing trend in redistricting.” However, the Census Bureau hasn’t kept up and as a result, has fallen short of its responsibility to provide states with redistricting data that is ready to use. Instead, states have to spend time and money correcting this data before they can begin the redistricting process.

As more states recognize that incarcerated people should be counted in their home districts, this problem will only get worse unless the Bureau takes steps to better meet redistricting data user needs.

In its comments, the California Legislature echoed the state’s independent redistricting commission’s request that the Bureau count incarcerated people at home and make that data available for state redistricting:

California’s independent redistricting commission voted unanimously to respond to the Federal Register Notice and request that data be provided that counts incarcerated people at their last-known residence instead of the address where they are incarcerated.

California wasn’t alone. Over a dozen states had to adjust Census redistricting data on their own to ensure that incarcerated people were counted at home. In its comments, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice points out the unnecessary burden created by the Bureau:

[B]ecause the Bureau still uses prison gerrymandering in its national count, the burden of correcting the gerrymandered data for the purpose of redistricting falls to states and localities. Where the Census is supposed to provide data fit for use in redistricting, these states and municipalities must now use time and resources they do not have to readjust the data they receive from gerrymandered to non-gerrymandered.

The Census Bureau is failing to deliver one of its core objectives: providing states with the redistricting data needed to draw equal districts.

This isn’t just a problem states face. Over 200 local governments — most of which have even less money, time, and expertise to dedicate to redistricting — also must independently address prison gerrymandering when drawing city council and county commissioner districts.

As a redistricting advocate in Indiana explained:

Because of the distortions created by counting prisoners, several counties in Indiana already resort to crude attempts to correct the data by simply not counting people in prison when they redistrict. …

While changes in the way the redistricting data was published in 2020 made it easier for these local governments to exclude the prisons from their data, not all took this extra step. And they should not need to. The Census Bureau should publish data that does not put the burden on local government to make it suitable for redistricting.

The states and local jurisdictions aren’t going out on a limb — courts have consistently supported prison gerrymandering reform. In a change of pace from the comments that relied mostly on practical and moral reasoning, Dēmos submitted six pages of legal analysis, which came to the same conclusion:

[T]he facts and legal rulings discussed in this Comment make up only a small part of the vast record of evidence that the Census Bureau’s current residence rule, as applied to incarcerated persons, is outdated and no longer accurately reflects the population that it seeks to count.

 

Inconsistent with other Census rules

By counting incarcerated people in prison cells rather than their true homes, the Census Bureau treats them unfairly and differently than others in similar transitory situations. Incarcerated people are surprisingly mobile, yet, unlike other groups, the Bureau treats them as if they resided at the facility they happen to be assigned to on Census day.

A former New York State Senate redistricting staff member explained in his comments that Census policies on incarcerated people are inconsistent with its other practices for transient populations:

Counting prisoners at the places of incarceration is inconsistent with the treatment of other categories. Persons in military deployment and elementary and secondary school students at boarding schools are counted at their home addresses, even though they may be at their temporary locations much longer than many prisoners. Persons who travel between multiple homes get to decide where they wish to [be] counted, regardless of which home they happen to be occupying on Census Day. In New York City, where I live, the huge number of visitors from elsewhere in the US filling the hotels on Census Day will properly be counted at their permanent home addresses. This practice will be followed even though the visitors will be in their temporary Census Day location by choice, unlike the prison populations.

The counting of university students where they attend school is an entirely different matter. Unlike prisoners, they are eligible to vote at places where they attend school, and they are at those locations by choice. Moreover, the congressmembers and legislators representing those communities have a strong interest in making them attractive places to attend school. Elected representatives have no such relation with the prisoners held in their districts.

 

Undermining Democracy

The Census Bureau plays a central role in ensuring fair and accurate political representation, a fundamental aspect of a functioning democracy. But how it currently counts incarcerated people undermines its ability to accomplish this goal by stripping disproportionately incarcerated communities of their political voices.

The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice explained how the Census Bureau effectively reinstates slavery-era suppression tactics with its refusal to update the residence rules for incarcerated people:

As Black and other people of color are disproportionately incarcerated by the criminal justice system, the voting and political power of their communities are disproportionately weakened by this policy. Given that the vast majority of incarcerated people do not have the right to vote in this country, prison gerrymandering is a modern-day Three-Fifths Compromise.

A coalition of advocates in North Carolina also warned the Bureau against doubling down on practices that perpetuate racial inequality:

Many communities of color see a direct link between the history of slavery, Jim Crow, state-sanctioned racial violence, and the inequities of mass incarceration today, which forms the basis of distrust of government at all levels. By continuing the practice of counting incarcerated people at the site of their incarceration and not in their home communities, the Census Bureau is feeding into this history rather than making appropriate changes toward a more equitable future that fosters trust and collaboration between government and communities.

 

Following the states’ lead for 2030

Counting incarcerated people as if they resided at the prison or jail where they are held on Census Day is increasingly unjustifiable, and the practical challenges of addressing the problem are quickly falling away. As the League of Women Voters pointed out, the Bureau can now rely on two decades of state-led innovation to guide its efforts to address this issue:

As many local governments and state governments have navigated the process of correcting redistricting data to account for census data skewed by prison gerrymandering, the Census Bureau may consider consulting the experience of those jurisdictions to smoothly transition to gathering census information for incarcerated people at their home address.

The Census Equity Initiative and Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation succinctly summarized the path forward for the Bureau:

The Bureau should revise the Residence Criteria and Situations for the 2030 Census to enumerate incarcerated persons, including detained juveniles, at their last home address prior to incarceration. While the Bureau explores a change to its Residence Criteria for incarcerated persons, it should work with states that have changed their redistricting residence rules, along with state and local government associations and other interested stakeholders, on improving a methodology to count incarcerated individuals, including detained juveniles, in their home communities, rather than at the facilities in which they are incarcerated on Census Day.

In their own words, these incarcerated people, their families, advocates, and government officials made the clear case for why it is time for the Census Bureau to change how it counts incarcerated people. The current practice exacerbates racial inequities, frustrates state and local governments, undermines our democracy, and is inconsistent with its own practices.

As the Bureau moves forward on designing the 2030 count, one big question remains: When it comes to ending prison gerrymandering, will it listen to these calls for change, or will it stubbornly cling to outdated and inaccurate practices of the past?



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