Please vote for Peter Wagner to receive the Maria Leavey Award to honor his decade of work to end prison-based gerrymandering!

by Leah Sakala, April 30, 2012

Prison Policy Initiative Executive Director Peter Wagner has been chosen as a finalist for the Maria Leavey Tribute Award for his decade-long work to end prison-based gerrymandering. Campaign for America’s Future presents this award annually to honor an “unsung progressive hero.”

Campaign for America’s Future recently announced the five finalists and opened public voting:

Two Occupy movement volunteers, a Chicago community organizer, an Atlanta health care activist and a crusader against “prison-based gerrymandering” have been nominated for the annual Maria Leavey Tribute Award, which honors an unsung progressive hero. The deserving person you select will receive the award at the June 18-20 “Take Back the American Dream” Conference. The five finalists were announced earlier today on our conference website, and now the voting begins to select a winner.

Peter launched the movement to end prison-based gerrymandering ten years ago with the Prison Policy Initiative’s first report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York. He found that an archaic Census Bureau rule enabled legislators with prisons in their districts to claim incarcerated people as “constituents,” bar them from the polls, and then use that extra clout to advocate for more prison expansion.

Over the last decade, Peter worked to expose the problem of prison-based gerrymandering and bring new organizations and leaders in to the movement. The bi-partisan urban and rural movement has won many victories. Four states and hundreds of local governments around the country refuse to dilute the votes of everyone who doesn’t live immediately next to a prison, and the Census Bureau has started to take notice.

Let’s vote for Peter to send the message that prison-based gerrymandering has no place in America’s future!

Democracy and criminal justice activists rejoiced, but the initial media response was much cooler.

by Peter Wagner, April 26, 2012

This article is one in a series commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the Prison Policy Initiative and our work.

The Prison Policy Initiative released our first report ten years ago last Sunday.
Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout was the first in-depth district by district analysis of what we now call prison-based gerrymandering. I analyzed each proposed New York State Senate and State Assembly district, looked at where incarcerated people came from, and suggested both interim and long-term solutions.

This report was the first of dozens of analyses we issued over the next decade. This first report was tough going. I hadn’t yet been introduced to Rose Heyer, who developed the electronic research methodology for the project, so all of the analysis was done manually. Every time the legislature changed the proposed plans, I’d have to start over.

After several rounds of this, I recruited some of my fellow law students, Tammy Ciak and Ann Fisher, to help me re-crunch the data tables so the report could be released before the legislature changed the plan yet again. I wanted the report to be relevant and spark a much-needed discussion while redistricting was still underway.

The report received great instantaneous feedback from forward-thinking criminal justice and election reform advocates. This is when I started collaborating with Brenda Wright of the National Voting Rights Institute (later Dēmos) and I was invited to present at the National Summit on the Impact of Incarceration on African-American Families
and Communities. That conference led to our work with Jazz Hayden, Manning Marable and many others.

And the initial media response to our first report? Zero. Given our reputation for bringing media attention to the issue, this might be surprising. But we couldn’t get a single paper to touch our report for months. The problem we identified was too big. The reporters I spoke with loved the issue, but their editors wouldn’t approve a story.

Typically, redistricting stories are simple ones about the partisan horse race of winners and losers. Even the stories that address the systemic flaws tend to focus on who controls the process, not on biases in the data. The first story about the report and prison-based gerrymandering didn’t see print until the NAACP’s bimonthly The New Crisis put it on the cover months later.

With this first report out, the national discussion had begun.

Peter Wagner be in NYC to speak about prison-based gerrymandering on Saturday at Columbia University.

by Peter Wagner, April 26, 2012

I’ll be speaking about prison-based gerrymandering and then moderating a roundtable discussion with Students Against Mass Incarceration on Saturday at the A New Vision of Black Freedom: The Manning Marable Memorial Conference at Columbia University in New York City. My session starts at 10am in the Earl Hall Auditorium.

This conference is particularly important to me because of the role that Manning Marable played in starting the movement against prison-based gerrymandering. As I wrote when he passed away:

Manning Marable helped put what we now call prison-based gerrymandering on the map by inviting me to meetings at his Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University in 2002 and to speak at the main plenary panel at the Africana Studies Against Criminal Injustice Conference in 2003. His early endorsement made our later successes possible.

If you will be in NYC this weekend, I hope to see you at the conference and at my talk!

Terre Haute city councilors are considering a resolution to exclude prison populations for redistricting purposes.

by Leah Sakala, April 18, 2012

The days of prison-based gerrymandering may soon be over for the city of Terre Haute, Indiana.

The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people in the facilities in which they are confined, rather than at their home addresses. This means that all the people who are locked up in the federal prison within Terre Haute city limits are included in the city’s total Census population counts. Using these census counts for redistricting purposes leads to serious problems for local democracy, unless the data is adjusted to make sure that incarcerated populations — who are not legal residents of the city under Indiana law, and who can neither vote nor participate in the local community — are not used to unfairly pad the district that contains the federal prison.

Because city officials did not adjust the 2000 census data when they redrew the city council districts ten years ago, about 20% of District One was made up of incarcerated people. This means that every four people in District One were given as much say in city government as five people in any other district.

Fortunately, this time around the issue is on the agenda, and city councilors will soon vote on a resolution to exclude the prison population for redistricting purposes.

As the city attorney, Chou-il Lee, pointed out in recent news coverage of city redistricting, using unadjusted redistricting data would mean that the people living in District One would have unfair additional political clout, “because there’s fewer of them represented by a full vote on the council.”

Terre Haute’s recent discussions about ending prison-based gerrymandering are especially good news considering the fact that the prison population has nearly doubled in size over the last decade, meaning that including the incarcerated people in the total counts used for redistricting would have an even more dramatic impact on local democracy than it did after 2000. If local officials do not take action to remove the prison population from the redistricting data, about a third of District One will be incarcerated.

And would it be fair for two voters in District One to have the same amount of say in local government as three voters in any other district? Of course not.

Michelle Alexander explains that prison-based gerrymandering is one example of how mass incarceration is distorting democracy in the United States.

by Leah Sakala, April 10, 2012

The New Jim Crow cover

In a recent op-ed, Professor Jess Rigelhaupt argues that the Obama administration needs to prioritize ending mass incarceration. He draws on Michelle Alexander’s powerful arguments about how mass incarceration fuels racial inequality in Alexander’s new book, The New Jim Crow. Both Professor Rigelhaupt and Professor Alexander point to the problem of prison-based gerrymandering in state legislative districts as an example.

As Professor Alexander explains on page 188:

Under the usual-residence rule, the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Because most new prison construction occurs in predominantly white, rural areas, white communities benefit from inflated population totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelmingly minority communities from which the prisoners come. This has enormous consequences for the redistricting process. White rural communities that house prisons wind up with more people in state legislatures representing them, while poor communities of color lose representatives because it appears their population has decreased. This policy is disturbingly reminiscent of the three-fifths clause in the original Constitution, which enhanced the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60 percent of slaves in the population base for calculating Congressional seats and electoral votes, even through they could not vote.

Her book provides a comprehensive picture of how mass incarceration is jeopardizing our democratic system and our wellbeing as a nation.

And if you’re interested in learning more about the parallels between prison-based gerrymandering and the infamous three-fifths clause, check out John Drake’s new journal article, “Locked Up and Counted Out: Bringing an End to Prison-based Gerrymandering,” or my blog post about prison-based gerrymandering in Wisconsin.

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