Arizona's Redistricting Commission has announced that it will be cognizant of prison-based gerrymandering during the redistricting process, and will exclude incarcerated populations for the purposes of evaluating majority-minorty districts.

by Leah Sakala, September 14, 2011

It looks like this time around Arizona is paying attention to the issue of prison-based gerrymandering.

At a meeting this week, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission recognized that counting incarcerated populations as residents of the districts in which they are confined could have a harmful effect on Arizona democracy. The meeting included technical and legal briefings, as well as compelling testimony from Mohur Sidhwa and Jim March.

After a lengthy discussion about the issue and various solutions, the Redistricting Commission promised to keep in mind the potential distortion caused by counting incarcerated people in the wrong place. Commissioner Richard Stertz explained that in particular the commission

…[doesn’t] want to give any indication of creating a non-voting population in a particular legislative district that would lead those that can vote into a hyper-majority by virtue of having so many prisoners in a particular legislative district.

The Redistricting Commission also clarified that it would exclude prisons from its Voting Rights Act Section 5 analysis in order to avoid creating “artificial majority-minority districts” comprised largely of non-voting incarcerated populations. As the Commission’s redistricting expert Bruce Adelson emphasized,

The election analysis in determining what are effective majority-minority districts where minorities have the opportunity to elect, as we’ve talked about, cannot include felons who are incarcerated because they can’t vote.

Prison-based gerrymandering was originally not on the Commission’s agenda. But the Commission’s recent announcement followed a new round of public attention to the problem. In particular, Amanda Crawford wrote a great article raising the issue in Phoenix Magazine, and as I blogged last month, AZBlueMeanie has been writing about the problem on Blog for Arizona. There has also been repeated detailed testimony at Commission meetings from Jim March of BlackBoxVoting and others arguing that avoiding prison-based gerrymandering is both advisable and technically feasible.

Video footage of the September 8, 2011 hearing is available on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s website.


Database prepared by PPI for redistricting professionals provides detailed demographics for the correctional population, including race, age and gender.

September 13, 2011

September 13, 2011 — A new database prepared by the Prison Policy Initiative for redistricting professionals provides detailed demographics for the correctional population, including race, age and gender. The database expands on the Census Bureau’s Advance Group Quarters Summary File released in April, which identified the population in each Census block that is incarcerated or in some other kind of group quarters.

Redistricting professionals consider it preferable to use the Census Bureau’s counts of correctional facilities when making adjustments to the redistricting data instead of relying on the correctional system or their own knowledge of where the facilities are located. Because the Census often mixes prison and non-prison populations in the same block, and occasionally does not enumerate prisons at their actual locations, the optimal way to identify correctional populations in the Census data is with actual Census data. Our database makes this easy.

Since the Group Quarters Summary File release in April, the Prison Policy Initiative has been working to make the data easier to use. Shortly after it’s release, we translated it into several more accessible formats, including an ESRI shapefile, a Google map and a table searchable by county or state. Some redistricting professionals have been frustrated that the data doesn’t include the names or types of facilities, or detailed demographic counts. Our new dataset fills these needs.

Since April, we’ve used 2010 vintage correctional system data to label the facilities in more than a third of the census blocks that contain correctional populations. (And more are being labeled each week.) This is particularly useful to redistricting professionals because they may wish to treat different types of correctional facilities differently for redistricting purposes, for example, reallocating state prison populations by not local jail populations.

Now, with the publication of Summary File 1, we’ve been able to pull in more detailed age, gender, race and ethnicity data for these populations for most of the blocks. This database is important because the Census Bureau often mixes prison and non-prison populations within the same block, so knowing the demographics of the block does not necessarily tell you the demographics of the prison population. We drew on different Census Bureau data tables depending on the specific circumstances in each block. For example, if the prison is the entirety of a block, the data was easy to access, and we used a table that reports race/ethnicity for the institutionalized group quarters population where the correctional facilities were the only institutionalized group quarter in the block. For other circumstances, we developed other processes to extract the data, and each data element in our database has a full footnote with the source.

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It's time to pay attention to the lessons we learned 40 years ago from the Attica prison rebellion, and recognize the critical differences between where prisoners come from and where they are confined.

by Rose Heyer and Peter Wagner, September 13, 2011

Forty years ago, thousands of people confined at the Attica prison in rural New York State rebelled, taking control of D-yard. The media was invited in to see the conditions and observe negotiations, so the whole world was watching when, forty years ago today, Governor Rockefeller ordered an assault on the prison, turning what was then the largest prison rebellion into the bloodiest. Forty-three people died, almost all from state police gunfire.

The rebellion and the investigation into its causes caused a fundamental reexamination of correctional policy throughout America, but the difficulties the state had in reforming Attica itself offers a powerful lens on the central role of geography and race in criminal justice policy.

Forty years ago, 63% of the people incarcerated at Attica were Black or Latino, but at that time there were no Blacks and only one Latino serving as guards. The prison population was 70% urban, mostly from New York City, but 80% of the guards were from rural New York.

The racial disparity between the keepers and the kept increased tensions at Attica, and gave Black and Latino prisoners a painful daily reminder that justice isn’t colorblind.

Many of the rebellion’s demands were common sense improvements to food, mail policies and rehabilitative programs, and were implemented nationwide in the years that followed. But the critical demand for more Black and Latino staff proved to be the most difficult to implement. The problem was not the hiring practices of the prisons, it was the locations of the prisons themselves. As leading scholar William Nagel explained shortly after the rebellion: “To avoid a federal Attica, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is now feverishly attempting to recruit black staff, but its task is complicated by the remoteness of its facilities.”

While existing prisons themselves are impossible to move, this lesson of Attica about the dangers of staff disparities was lost in the rush of the late 1980s and 1990s to build more prisons. Speculative ideas about rural economic development trumped safe and rehabilitative correctional policy. Two-thirds of new prisons were built in rural areas, despite the experience at Attica and despite research showing that keeping an incarcerated person close to home increases family visits and reduces the odds of recidivism or a return to prison. Thus, despite, a consensus that prisons should hire more Black and Latino staff, progress has been limited.

By 2005, (the latest year with complete comparative data), the incarcerated population at Attica had increased to 77% Black and Latino. But out of a total staff of 859, the number of blacks had only risen to 12 and the Latino staff to 9. Attica’s staff remains overwhelmingly white because Attica itself has not moved. Attica remains located in a rural, overwhelmingly white region of New York State.

Attica’s staffing pattern is dramatic, but nationally, it’s not atypical. The fact that Blacks and Latinos make up 57% of the nation’s incarcerated population but hold only 28% of the correctional jobs is further proof that the bulk of the nation’s prisons are still in communities that are very different than the communities that incarcerated people come from.

In part, these facts show how the prison system’s wild growth undermined its own goals. But from the perspective of voting rights, they tell a larger story about how mass incarceration dilutes the votes of individual Blacks and Latinos who don’t have any direct contact with the criminal justice system.

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The original U.S. Constitution used enslaved people to grant extra political clout to the states with lots of slaves, shifting the balance of power. This dynamic has a contemporary parallel.

by Leah Sakala, September 9, 2011

Rep. Roys

I was recently watched some striking footage of a Wisconsin Assembly hearing from September, 2009, about Assembly Joint Resolution 63 to exclude incarcerated persons from redistricting data. The video begins with a discussion of how to count incarcerated people in Wisconsin, but then quickly turns into a heated debate about how prison-based gerrymandering relates to our nation’s conflicted history with the concepts of personhood and equal representation. To me, the fact the conversation veered into such fundamental questions shows how sometimes the solutions to prison-based gerrymandering can be counterintuitive.

Here’s why:

When incarcerated people are counted as residents of the district in which they are incarcerated, the actual residents of that district get undue additional political clout and the voters who live everwhere else lose out. The ideal solution is to completely solve the problem by counting incarcerated people at their home addresses. But, although it may sound strange at first, the second best option is for incarcerated populations to be removed from redistricting data altogether. The video I watched was about this second approach. Wisconsin 2009 Assembly Joint Resolution 63 sponsored by Representative Fred Kessler proposed to remove prison counts from Wisconsin’s redistricting data.

But this idea didn’t sit well with Representative Kleefisch. Given the United States racially disproportionate incarceration rates and pernicious history of denying racial minorities their civil rights, he asked, doesn’t the proposal to exclude prisoners from redistricting counts hark back to the infamous practice of denying certain individuals their full personhood?

Representative Kelda Helen Roys responded to this question by drawing an apt historical connection to the infamous 1787 constitutional clause that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of Congressional redistricting, even though they were denied the right to vote. The three-fifths clause had the effect of using slave population numbers to artificially beef up the political power of the Southern, white, property-owning voters who were invested in maintaining and expanding the slave system. But the problem with the three-fifths clause wasn’t that the slaves were counted as only a fraction of a person. After all, since their “political clout” went right into the hands of the very people who exploited them, the political distortion would have been even greater had they been counted as full people. The problem was that slave populations were used to artificially inflate the political power of the very same people who went to great lengths to deny them their right to personal sovereignty, much less their right to vote.

When a government engages in prison-based gerrymandering, incarcerated people, who disproportionately come from minority and urban communities, are stripped of their right to vote but still included in the population counts of the disproportionately white districts in which they are incarcerated. Their political clout is essentially handed through the bars to the real residents of the community that contains the prison, giving certain people more political say simply by virtue of their residential proximity to a large prison. This also gives the legislators who represent districts that include prisons the power to use incarcerated people’s bodies to count against their own interests by supporting punitive criminal justice legislation, as such representatives are utterly free from accountability to their non-voting “constituents” behind bars.

It’s just as unfair as it sounds. And Representative Roys’s observation about the connection between prison-based gerrymandering and the three-fifths clause isn’t abstract history. Let’s look at a contemporary example.

Continue reading →


Prison Policy Initiative urges Governor Brown to sign California's bill to end prison-based gerrymandering.

by Aleks Kajstura, September 8, 2011

California’s movement to end prison-based gerrymandering is in the home stretch. Yesterday, the Assembly passed the Senate’s amendments to AB 420, and the bill passed its last legislature hurtle. The bill will give the Citizens Redistricting Commission the data necessary to count incarcerated people at their home addresses. When Governor Brown signs AB 420 into law, California will join New York, Maryland, and Delaware in ensuring equality in representation for all residents.

I sent a letter in support of the bill to the Governor, urging him to sign it into law.

The bill will fix a longstanding conflict between Census Bureau practices and California law. Redistricting data provided by the Census Bureau does not count incarcerated people at their home address; rather it counts them at the location of a prison. This approach is incongruous with California law which specifies that incarceration does not change a person’s residence. The result is districts that are skewed by non-resident populations, diluting the voting strength of everyone who does not live near a prison.

We discovered that most California counties with large prisons have already taken steps to limiting the impact of prison populations on their County Supervisory Districts. These ten counties remove the prison population from their redistricting data. Solano County is one of the two counties that did not adjust the census data in redistricting last decade and as a result, every group of 9 people who actually live in District 4 (which contains the CSP Solano and California Medical Correctional Facility) were granted as much influence as 10 people in Solano’s other districts. This bill would make sure that no county’s districts are unintentionally distorted by prison populations as they were in Solano.



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