Politicians Unify Prisoners’ Power – For Themselves!

Bruce Reilly guest blogs about prison-based gerrymandering in Rhode Island.

by Bruce Reilly, March 29, 2011

For those of you in my home state, Prison-Based Gerrymandering might be well known, along with my comrades in New York, Delaware, or Maryland.  For the rest, please take this small state example and reach out for us to help you tackle your own location.

Over a year has passed since the first attempts to educate RI policy makers on the issue of Prison-Based Gerrymandering.  The 2010 Census data shows that the imprisoned “residents” of Cranston have grown by 6%.  Considering overall RI population growth is the lowest in America (0.4%), 26 times lower than the national average, it is time to count prisoners in their communities or continue the path of seriously imbalanced power.

A hearing was held in the Senate Judiciary on a bill that would count prisoners in their communities rather than cellblocks.  Peter Wagner, from Prison Policy Initiative, has been a technical resource on this issue around the country, including successful legislative changes in New York, Delaware, and Maryland last year.  He noted that RI Dept. of Corrections has excellent data, and the U.S. Census Bureau officially adjusted their statistics this year so that the prisons can be more easily identified.

See the RI population numbers by prison, in Google Maps.

John Marion of Common Cause noted how every district loses by ceding power to those that contain the prisoners.  It is not about finances, but about the number of people one needs to represent.  He also pointed out that, under RI law, people do not lose their residence based on many things including going away to college, military service, or prison.  When Senator Hodgson inquired about the possibility of voters awaiting trial losing their residence by this, Steve Brown (ACLU) pointed out that someone awaiting trial would not be able to register as a resident of Cranston unless they were actually from there.  The Absentee Ballot would correspond with their “home address.”  Likewise, prisoners are not allowed to register their children in Cranston schools nor benefit from being a Cranston resident in any tangible way.

Tish DiPrete spoke on behalf of the Urban League about the overall lack of representation in urban areas, as they are traditionally undercounted already.  People move around quite often, and any city politician should know that many of their registered voters (who will indeed vote) have moved across town.  Considering the overall population numbers are reduced, and growth is low, urban representation needs to be repatriated.

A perfect example is how 27% of northern Smith Hill is vacant properties, the district will have to expand in order to have the adequate number of residents.  The ProJo recently published the populations of each current district, and whether they have too few, or too many, residents.  As the article points out, expanding territory into new towns creates a whole other set of commitments and demands.

Current House District 15 has 1,081 extra people, while also having 1,736 incarcerated non-voters padding the district.

Current House District 16 has 374 extra people, while also having 1,821 incarcerated non-voters padding the district.  This is currently Rep. Peter Palumbo’s district which clearly has the fewest vote-eligible people in Rhode Island.  Because of our consolidated prisons, RI ends up with one of the most affected districts in the nation due to prison-based gerrymandering.

In 1970, the ACI population represented 4% of a House district.  That number climbed to 6% in 1980, then 19% in 1990.  In 2000 the number rose to 23%, and now it is at 25%.

Consider the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls House District 56.  It has 360 incarcerated “residents” (2010 Census), up from 324 in year 2000.  Yet anyone who has been following the Wyatt saga (if not, search “Wyatt” on this site) knows this population has been over 700 during the past decade, and possibly only the death of a detainee has halved the number.  Incidentally, CF District 56 is up 984 people.  Shedding the Wyatt would make its expansion a matter of blocks, rather than neighborhoods.

What of the Senate implications, you ask?  They are half as blatant, considering there are half as many districts.  Currently, all 3557 Cranston prisoners are counted as residents of Senate District 27.  This reduces every other Senate district in RI only 87% as powerful as the padded district.  D 27 is currently over by 444 residents, and would be ceding some ground… but it should be ceding 4000 people, and the neighborhoods they hail from.

And finally, there is Cranston City Ward 6, which is nearly 25% prisoners.  This means that for every three people in line to speak with the Ward 6 Councilor, there are four in line to see the others.  Each one with a demand.

For a conversation on the situation in RI, listen to this podcast between myself and Peter Wagner.

Its not a Democrat/Republican thing, its a “One Man, One Vote” thing.  And if you’re not into that, it says a bit about your feelings on the U.S. Constitution and the canon of law.

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