ChicagoNow calls out downstate politicians for hypocrisy, comparing their voting records to claims that they actually represent incarcerated people's interests.

by Peter Wagner, June 6, 2010

Angela Caputo of ChicagoNow

analyzed the voting records of lawmakers representing Illinois’ 21 most inmate-heavy House districts. Of the two-dozen bills analyzed, the Reporter found:

  • Six House members representing the state’s 21 most inmate-heavy districts voted at least two-thirds of the time against legislation around ex-offender jobs and education;
  • Eight voted against those same measures at least half of the time;
  • And, only one House member signed on as a co-sponsor to a piece of ex-offender legislation.”

That’s great research about one part of the hypocrisy of defending prison-based gerrymandering in Illinois.

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by Aleks Kajstura, June 4, 2010

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published my letter to the editor correcting a recent AP story that claimed towns stood to gain funding by having detention centers within their borders.

“Detained immigrants may help bring in census money” (ajc.com, May 31) repeats a common mistake. The article claims towns that host detention facilities could receive a financial boost as a result of the Census Bureau counting the detainees as town residents. Actually, most federal funding is block grants to states, not towns.

Why does it matter where detainees and other prisoners are counted? Because census data is used to draw legislative districts. Districts with prisons and detention centers pad out their populations and dilute the political clout of every single other person who does not have a prison in their district. Counting incarcerated people as if they were residents of the facility harms democracy.

States can use the census’ early release of prison population data to fix this redistricting problem. Any such fix will not affect funding.


Delaware is poised to follow Maryland and end prison-based gerrymandering.

by Peter Wagner, June 2, 2010

Yesterday, the Delaware House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that will count, for redistricting purposes, incarcerated people at their actual home addresses, not where they happen to be incarcerated. The bill now goes to the Senate.

The U.S. Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location. Prison-based gerrymandering happens when state and local government bodies use Census counts to draw legislative districts, and they unintentionally enhance the weight of a vote cast in districts that contain prisons at the expense of of people residing in all other districts in the state. If passed by the Senate and signed in to law, Delaware would be the second state — after Maryland — to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering in their state.

New York and Rhode Island have similar bills pending for this legislative session. Other states are preparing to introduce legislation in the next legislative session just in time for the start of redistricting next year. The prompt and unanimous passage of Delaware’s bill in the House is a strong signal that prison-based gerrymandering is an unacceptable stain on American democracy.


County officials do not have the luxury of crafting specious arguments in favor of prison-based gerrymandering. They have to do the right thing.

by Elena Lavarreda, June 2, 2010

Often, the biggest proponents of maintaining prison-based gerrymandering are state legislative officials with prisons in their districts. The extra population, which can’t vote, leaves fewer real constituents to be responsible to. Many times, the advantage brought by prison-based gerrymandering at the state legislative level is large enough to fight for, but not so big that one looks unreasonable to fight for it. These officials have the luxury of crafting specious arguments in defense of prison-based gerrymandering because the impact is comparatively small.

County officials, however, do not have the same luxury. Their county board districts tend to be smaller, so a single large prison could be the majority of the district. Granting some people who live near a prison more than twice the influence than others over their government simply doesn’t make sense. That’s why every county but one which has had to grapple with prison-based gerrymandering has rejected the practice, and excluded the prisoners when drawing their districts.

That said, prison-based gerrymandering still exists in many rural communities as an accident, where nobody noticed the prison was distorting democracy. For that reason, the Prison Policy Initiative has been researching how county board districts are drawn in communities that host prisons across the country.

One of the clearest examples of the import of prison-based gerrymandering is in Texas. The state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and its prisons are far from the urban centers that most people in prison call home. Many of the prisons are so large, and the population in some of the rural counties so small, that the impact on state legislative districting is larger than in most other states.

But it is also in rural Texas where a consensus has developed that it doesn’t make sense to draw districts based on prison populations. In earlier research, Peter Wagner found 7 rural Texas counties who ignored the prison population when drawing their county districts.

In my work, I found an additional 7 counties that excluded the prison population when they drew their Commissioner districts. More research is ongoing, but we have yet to find a rural Texas county that has considered the question and thought it was a good idea to give some people more representation just because those people live next to a large prison.

I researched the following County Commissioner districts and saw that each ignored the prison populations when drawing their Commissioner districts, and why this solution was necessary:

  • Childress County—One district in the eastern part of the county would have been 70% prisoners, giving some residents almost three times as much influence as residents elsewhere.
  • Walker County—Three of the four districts contain large prisons, and one district would have been about half prisoners, giving some residents twice the influence of others.
  • Anderson—A district in the western part of the county would have been entirely prisoners, with no voters.
  • Karnes—A district in the south would have been 73% prisoners.
  • Pecos—One district in the west would have been 32% prisoners.
  • Mitchell—A district in the northwest would have been entirely prisoners.
  • Coryell—A district in the central part of the county would have been 47% prisoners.

These 7 counties, like the 7 counties Peter discovered in April, all reject the Census Bureau’s prison counts and draw fair districts based on the actual population of their counties.

Prisons are an important phenomenon in Texas. In his new book, Texas Tough, Robert Perkinson shows that Texas leads the nation by most measures of criminal justice severity — total prison population, total supermax cells, and total executions.

But when it comes to the harm to democracy caused by prison-based gerrymandering, these rural Texas counties have shown that not everything is bigger in Texas.

With state legislative redistricting right around the corner, I hope that state leaders will follow the ethical example set by their county-level counterparts.


An Associated Press story spreads confusion and fear about potential changes in how prisoners counted for redistricting purposes.

by Peter Wagner, June 1, 2010

The Associated Press is reporting that Census Bureau counts of detained immigrants may “bring money to the towns, cities and counties in Texas, Arizona, Washington and Georgia where the country’s biggest and newest facilities are located.”

That’s simply wrong, as is the fear that a recent change in how the Census Bureau publishes the prison counts will impact funding.

This story repeats some facts about why the participation in the Census is important, and then takes those facts to a flawed conclusion. The article incorrectly says that “[t]he payout can be hefty for small towns” and then seeks to back it up with this true but misleading sentence:

“Federal money being
distributed from the census averaged about $1,469 per person in fiscal
year 2008, according to the Brookings Institute.”

The Brookings Institute report is consistent with our previous research which shows that the fast majority of federal aid is block grants to states, primarily for Medicaid and highways. The $1,469 simply does not go to localities.

Even more troubling is the unnecessary fear that this story raises about new changes at the Census Bureau:

“This census brings a twist, though. For the first time, states have
the option of counting people in detention centers and prisons as
residents of their last address before they’re detained, worrying some
local lawmakers who say cities and counties that host detention
centers could lose money.”

This paragraph misstates both what the Census Bureau has agreed to do, and what it means. As Aleks Kajstura has explained, states and local governments have always had the option to adjust the Census Bureau’s population counts. In fact, more than 100 localities already reject the Census Bureau’s prison count when redistricting. By publishing the prison counts earlier, the Census Bureau will make this process easier. But if states want to follow Maryland and count people in prison at their home addresses, they need to collect and process that data themselves. The Census Bureau is not collecting or distributing home address data at all.

Government funding formulas are sophisticated attempts to match limited funds to the specific needs. School funds, for example, are distributed in large part by the number of children, and poverty funds, are distributed by various measures of poverty. All of these measures are too sophisticated to be fooled by prison counts, and no federal aid program is based on state or county redistricting data.


A large prison closed just after the 2010 Census was completed could harm democracy.

by Peter Wagner, June 1, 2010

The Associated Press is reporting that:

WATONGA, Okla. — This Blaine County city wants its criminals back.

Not back on the streets, but back in the private prison that until Thursday was Watonga’s biggest employer.

Now it’s empty.

For budgetary reasons, the state of Arizona recently decided not to renew the contract that placed 2,000 prisoners in the Oklahoma facility. The private company is looking for a new client, but for now, the 300 people who worked at the facility must transfer to other prisons or be out a job.

That effort has the mayor’s attention, but another problem is just below the surface: the prison count. The prison may be gone, but unless the county takes action soon, the closed prison is poised to harm democracy in the county for a decade to come.

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