New map shows the growing national movement to reject the Census Bureau's prison miscount and to end prison-based gerrymandering.

by Peter Wagner, August 27, 2012

We’ve produced a new map showing the strong and growing national consensus that prison-based gerrymandering must end:

Map showing the growing national momentum to end prison-based gerrymandering, including actions by state and local governments

For more information about individual places on the map, see our campaign pages for California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Oregon and Wisconsin and our legislation page for additional information on previous legislation in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Indiana and Texas. Also see our articles about the laws in Michigan, Colorado and Virginia that require or encourage local governments to avoid prison-based gerrymandering.

As of today, we know of 143 individual county and municipal governments known to have excluded prison populations when redistricting.

The copy of this map at will be updated as new bills are introduced and passed and as our research confirms additional counties and municipalities that avoided prison-based gerrymandering.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 23, 2012

California’s historic law ending prison-based gerrymandering is about to get even better. The California Senate just passed a bill (AB 1986), that improves California’s law ending prison based gerrymandering.

Last summer, AB 420 (now Section 21003 of the Elections Code) presented a uniform state-wide solution to California’s problem of prison-based gerrymandering, making California the fourth state to end the practice. AB 420 prepared the State to count incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes after the 2020 Census, and AB 1986 will make improvements to the law based on New York and Maryland’s implementation of their laws ending prison-based gerrymandering.

AB 1986 extends AB 420 to apply to prison populations in federal prisons. (AB 420 only provided for the collection of home addresses of people incarcerated in state prisons.)

AB 1986 also increases the precision in the required data. Currently the redistricting data is only requested to be adjusted by zip code, but the new bill expressly references Census blocks, which are the smallest geographic unit used by the Census Bureau. Switching to Census blocks creates more precision while also creating greater compatibility with the Census Bureau’s redistricting data sets.

Lastly, AB 1986 puts greater privacy protections in place. It requests that the Commission not publish the home addresses of incarcerated people, but only the final population data aggregated to Census blocks.

AB 1986, like AB 420, does not affect the distribution of state or federal funds. For more details, see the full bill analysis available from the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting. AB 1986 is now headed to the Governor to be signed into law!

Is a piece of land containing a prison on a dusty piece of highway really an urban area? The Census Bureau doesn’t think so. Anymore.

by Drew Kukorowski, August 23, 2012

About three miles north of Calipatria, California, the state of California operates the Calipatria State Prison. Based upon the 2000 census, the United States Census Bureau classified “Calipatria North, California” as an “Urban Cluster” with a population of 3,176. But is a piece of land containing a prison on a dusty piece of highway really an urban area? I don’t think so, and the Census Bureau doesn’t think so either. Anymore.

illustration of the city of Calipatria California and the Calipatria State Prison. The prison is surrounded by miles of farmland and is not an urban area.

Recently, the Census Bureau released the list of “Urbanized Areas” and “Urban Clusters” that were classified as urban based on the 2010 census data. This new list incorporated a quirky but important change that the Census Bureau finalized in 2011. Specifically, the Census Bureau no longer labels an area “urban” if the majority of the population counted there is institutionalized in a prison, mental hospital or similar group quarters facility.

I discovered this quirk – and the pending change – during my Alternative Spring Break internship at the Prison Policy Initiative last year. I was investigating an Arkansas highway funding formula that, in part, gave extra funding to counties that had a large portion of their population classified as “rural.” This formula made a lot of sense, as rural populations are more spread out, so there would presumably be more roads per capita to maintain. Unfortunately for rural Arkansas counties, classifying prisons as “urban” made the counties that hosted prisons seem more urban than they actually were.

While most of our work at Prison Policy Initiative addresses prison-based gerrymandering, this urban classification problem is just one of many examples we’ve come across of how the Census Bureau’s policy of counting incarcerated persons at the location of prisons can distort governmental decision-making that relies on accurate portrayals of communities.

To the Census Bureau’s credit, it changed the way it classifies areas as “Urban Clusters” to avoid this problem. In reviewing the 2000 data, the Census Bureau acknowledged that twenty-four “Urban Clusters” from the 2000 census data were comprised “entirely or predominantly” of residents in institutional group quarters (cite: 75 FR 52178-79). Realizing that such areas “lack most of the residential, commercial, and infrastructure characteristics typically associated with urban territory,” the Census Bureau proposed that an Urban Cluster meet two requirements: that the area contain at least 2,500 people and that at least 1,500 of those persons be outside of institutional group quarters. In 2011, the Census Bureau finalized this proposal, and reiterated that persons counted in institutional group quarters lack the residential and commercial characteristics associated with the surrounding community (cite: 76 FR 53036). In other words, it’s a mistake to classify big prisons in the same way as urban communities.

While this an admittedly minor rule change, the Census Bureau’s rationale for the change is noteworthy. The Census Bureau acknowledged that institutional group quarters populations, many of which are incarcerated, lack sufficient connections to the surrounding community to justify their unrestricted use for census data purposes. Moreover, the Census Bureau implemented a reasonable correction to this particular problem caused by counting incarcerated persons as residents of the prisons in which they are incarcerated.

We should take heart from the fact that the Census Bureau is slowly but surely acknowledging and ameliorating the distorting effects caused by its policy of counting incarcerated persons at the location of prisons, rather than at their home addresses. The next logical step would be for the Census Bureau to review how it counts prison populations for data used in redistricting. It’s in the redistricting context that the Census Bureau’s prison miscount has the most severe implications.

Under Dr. Groves, the 2010 Census was a huge success for the Census Bureau. The President should appoint the next director as soon as possible to make the 2020 Census as efficient and high quality as possible.

by Peter Wagner, August 22, 2012

Dr. Robert Groves with Peter Wagner

Dr. Robert Groves (left) at a February 2010 Congressional hearing, “2010 Census: Enumerating People Living in Group Quarters.”
Source: Our Time Press

On Friday, the Census Bureau lost its director when Robert Groves stepped down to be Provost of Georgetown University.

Director Groves was appointed to run the Census Bureau in 2009, with the 2010 Census rapidly approaching. Director Groves quickly put his stamp on the agency, working to cut costs and increase quality, while also working a tireless national travel schedule to promote participation in the Census. The 2010 Census was widely considered a success, and Dr. Groves deserves much of the credit.

Here at the Prison Policy Initiative, we wanted to highlight one of the less talked-about good news stories about the Census Bureau under Dr. Groves’s leadership. For the first time, the Census Bureau agreed to identify which census blocks contained group quarters, such as correctional facilities, early enough that state and local redistricting bodies can choose to use this data to draw fair districts.

As Dr. Groves explained on his blog: “This decade we are releasing early counts of prisoners (and counts of other group quarters), so that states can leave the prisoners counted where the prisons are, delete them from the redistricting formulas, or assign them to some other locale.”

Of course, we here at the Prison Policy Initiative have long urged the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses; but this change was a big one. It didn’t require state or local governments to do anything differently, but it did give those government bodies more choices.

Director Groves further explained this change in his testimony to Congress:

The Census Bureau recently decided to provide an early release of 2010 Census counts of residents of group quarters in May 2011.

We will supply the block-level counts as defined by Public Law No. 94-171, used in redistricting activities in the states by the end March, 2011. We learned in discussions over the past few months with external stakeholders that providing a related tabulation might be useful to them. We also learned that the tabulation would be helpful to our partners in local and state governments, and in our own Count Question Resolution Program, which looks for anomalies in the census counts at low levels of geography.

To serve these needs the Census Bureau is preparing to release a planned table from our Summary File 1 product plan, the P-41 table, a few months earlier than the release of the entire Summary File 1 product, which is scheduled for release June through August 2011. This single table is not a special tabulation or a preliminary table—but an early release of a planned table to facilitate potential uses to a host of data users. […]

What this table provides is a tool for those public officials charged with the responsibility of redistricting their state legislative boundaries the opportunity to assess the significance of group quarters populations in their plans. This table does not remove prisoner populations from their respective census tabulation blocks. This table will not remove group quarters populations from the 2010 census totals. There should be no impact on the distribution of federal, state or local funds based upon the early release of this table. This release is consistent with providing the states with the tools they need to conduct their legislative redistricting.

I would like to stress that the Census Bureau does not participate in any redistricting activities. Our job is a completely nonpartisan, objective enumeration of the population. Simply put, the Census Bureau collects individual information and reports aggregates based on it. Fittingly, the Founding Fathers left it to the federal, state, and local governments to use the information for their political purposes. In that vein, the Census Bureau endeavors to compile the group quarters information in the Summary File for its key data users at the state and local level. How those levels of governments choose to use the data is squarely within their realm of authority.

This effort by the Census Bureau was a big success. As redistricting experts discussed two weeks ago in Chicago at the National Conference of State Legislatures conference, the early release of the prison count data was essential to the implementation of Maryland and New York‘s laws that counted incarcerated people at home. And at that meeting, I shared that I knew of at least 132 local governments that removed the prison populations prior to redistricting.

Georgetown’s gain is unfortunately the Bureau’s loss. I hope the President will appoint a replacement as soon as possible. The wellbeing of our nation depends on accurate data, and under Dr. Groves, the Census Bureau had a very huge success in the 2010 Census and already has begun planning for the next Census. The next Census might be more than 7 years away, but the Bureau is already hard at work. The best way to have the highest quality Census at the lowest possible cost is to ensure that the Bureau can benefit from strong permanent leadership for the entire decade.

Statewide legislation addressing prison-based gerrymandering would eliminate inconsistency and help to ensure that all Louisiana citizens have equal access to their local governments.

by Hillary Fenton, August 22, 2012

The state of Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of anywhere in the world. This creates a host of issues for the state, including the distortion of democracy caused by the inclusion of large prisons during redistricting. This problem is called prison-based gerrymandering. Though some parishes in Louisiana have implemented their own solutions to prison-based gerrymandering in their parish local government districts, called “police jury districts,” other parishes continue to include incarcerated populations during redistricting. Given the inconsistency in parish democracy, a statewide solution to prison-based gerrymandering may be necessary.

Among the parishes with the proportionally largest prison populations, about half excluded their prison populations during redistricting following the 2010 Census, preventing the vote distortion that would have been caused by including the incarcerated populations. For the most part, the higher a parish’s prison population relative to its total population, the more likely they were to exclude the prison population.

Two parishes excluded their incarcerated populations in order to prevent an impossible electoral situation. Claiborne Parish, on the northern border of the state, would have had an entire police jury district comprised of incarcerated populations if they had included the prison populations during redistricting.

West Feliciana Parish also faced the same problem. The parish is home to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola, which contains 5,147 people according to the 2010 Census. West Feliciana as a whole has a reported population of 15,625 and seven police jury districts. This means that if the prison population had been included during redistricting, the incarcerated population would have filled two entire police jury districts. For those who are working to end prison-based gerrymandering in Louisiana, it might seem strange to look for support from the parish that contains Angola; however, that parish is the prime in-state example of why recognizing and preventing prison-based gerrymandering is so important. As both Claiborne and West Feliciana parishes know well, when prison-based gerrymandering reaches such dramatic levels, the problem becomes impossible to ignore.

Though parishes were more likely to exclude prison populations when those populations made up a high percentage of the parish population, a few parishes went against this trend by including large incarcerated populations during redistricting, creating severe distortions in their local democracy.

Allen Parish has the most acute prison-based gerrymandering vote distortion of any parish in the state. Two of its seven districts contain large corrections facilities: 66% of District 1 is incarcerated in FCI and FDC Oakdale, and 39% of District 6 is incarcerated in the state-run Allen Correctional Center. This means that the non-incarcerated populations of these districts are substantially smaller than the populations of the districts without prisons. Because these smaller voting populations in the prison districts each elect a whole representative for themselves, each voter in the prison districts has more say in parish government than those in other districts. In District 1 for example, one voter in that district has the same political power as three voters in other districts.

Inconsistency in addressing prison-based gerrymandering is not only a problem among Louisiana parishes, but also within parishes themselves. Although FCI and FDC Oakdale are included in Allen Parish police jury districts, ironically the same prison populations are excluded by a city in Allen Parish: the City of Oakdale. Otherwise, Oakdale would have had one district that was entirely people incarcerated at the federal prison who are unable to vote.

Statewide legislation would eliminate these inconsistent approaches from parish to parish and would, most importantly, would help to ensure that all Louisiana citizens have equal access to their local governments.

Making the videos was a great opportunity for us to explain how the Prison Policy Initiative came to be and present our vision for the future of the criminal justice and democracy reform movements.

by Peter Wagner, August 17, 2012

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation has given the Prison Policy Initiative a great platform to tell funders about what we do. On Tuesday, the foundation launched the Giving Library, which features video presentations by 250 non-profits, including the Prison Policy Initiative.

On the site, each organization is featured in a short introductory video, and a “virtual meeting” allows donors to hear the answers to 10 questions about the organization’s history, success, challenges, myths and future plans. I filmed our video in February, and the Giving Library website went live earlier this week.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation produced the Giving Library to make it easier for philanthropists examine a large number of potential recipients. Meredith Johnson, director of Communications for the foundation, explained in a press release that going online to meet potential new grantees streamlines philanthropy: “What would have taken months or even years of meetings and travel can now be done in a matter of days, from anywhere.”

We were particularly thrilled to participate in the online Giving Library because, while our work is national in scope and impact, we are located in a part of the country where networking with potential donors often requires expensive and time consuming travel.

Making the videos was a great opportunity for us to step back and explain how the Prison Policy Initiative came to be and present our vision for the future of the criminal justice and democracy reform movements. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation has made a great tool that will bring philanthropy and non-profits together, and I’m honored that they choose the Prison Policy Initiative to participate.

After the passage of the No Representation Without Population Act, the county that had no functional majority minority Commission districts draws two.

by Leah Sakala, August 16, 2012

Somerset County emblem

The Somerset Herald reports that a county in Maryland that had never elected an African American to county office may soon elect two, thanks to the Maryland law that ended prison-based gerrymandering. Although Somerset County Maryland contains a sizable African-American population, first slavery, then Jim Crow, and then prison-based gerrymandering prevented the African-American community from being able to elect a candidate of its choice for hundreds of years.

Activists from Somerset County played a central role in passing Maryland’s first-in-the-nation law requiring that incarcerated people be counted at their home addresses for state and local redistricting purposes. This law capped an effort to secure fair representation in Somerset County that spanned several decades. In the 1980s, in order to settle a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by local activists, the county agreed to create a majority minority district to allow the African-American community to elect a candidate of its choice.

But the effort was foiled because the district was drawn based on U.S. Census data that counted the people incarcerated in the Eastern Correctional Institution as residents of the county. When county officials redistricted after the 1990 Census, they drew a district that appeared to be majority African American. But because a large portion of the minority population that was counted in the new district was made up of incarcerated people who were not allowed to vote, there weren’t enough actual African-American voters in the district to elect the candidate of their choice. As Deborah Jeon from the Maryland ACLU explained,

“I wasn’t here in ’87 when the prison opened, but I was here in 1990 and it was on my radar screen that something in Somerset was amiss. It didn’t seem to be working fairly. We began to focus on the prison and the effect of the prison on the election.”

The handful of voters who lived near the prison had more than twice the representation on the county commission that their numbers warranted, and including the prison in that district made it impossible for African Americans anywhere in the county to elect a candidate of their choice. In terms advancing minority voting power, the county lived up to its official motto: “Semper Eadem” or “Always the Same.”

But in 2009, a coalition of local activists worked together with the Somerset County chapter of the NAACP, the Maryland ACLU, and the Legislative Black Caucus to document the problem and find a remedy. Their efforts resulted in a state-wide solution to the problem of prison-based gerrymandering that ensured that the African-American community of Somerset has the opportunity to be fairly represented in county affairs.

The No Representation Without Population Act of 2010 ensures that everyone has the same access to government regardless of whether or not they live next to a large prison, and the law ended the practice of giving extra representation to a state legislative district in western Maryland that was 18% incarcerated. The law also ensures that no district in the state is able to masquerade as a functional majority-minority district solely because it contains a large prison population.

With the endorsement of the U.S. Supreme Court in June, the No Representation Without Population Act is firmly established as one of the major civil rights victories of the decade. And when Somerset County holds the next County Commissioner election in 2014, Somerset residents will be able to choose a Board of Commissioners that faithfully reflects the needs and interests of the county’s actual population.

The combination of a falling population and swelling prison made Jackson County's prison-based gerrymandering problem even worse.

by Hillary Fenton, August 10, 2012

Like many counties across the country, Jackson County in northeastern Arkansas relied on the 2010 Census to determine its population for redistricting purposes. Unfortunately, because the Census Bureau counts those in prison where they are incarcerated rather than where they are from, Jackson County’s use of unadjusted census data has resulted in distortion of democracy among its Justice of the Peace districts, amplified even more by a shrinking county population and a growing prison population.

This distortion is a result of prison-based gerrymandering, or the counting of nonvoting prison populations as part of the total population during redistricting. Because the widely-used U.S. Census continues to count those in prison at their place of incarceration, prison-based gerrymandering is a problem nationwide. Even though Arkansas state law declares that incarceration does not change a person’s legal domicile, Jackson County ended up including its prison population in its redistricting data because they relied on unadjusted census counts.

Jackson County contains two large state prisons, the Grimes and McPherson Units. Grimes is a medium security men’s facility, and McPherson is a women’s prison and includes the women’s death row. The two facilities were opened in 1998 by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, and were later transferred to the state and expanded. According to the 2010 Census, the total incarcerated population of both facilities is 1,777.

After both the 2000 and 2010 censuses, Jackson County drew the 5th Justice of the Peace district to encompass the Grimes and McPherson Units, including the prison populations in the total district population. After the redistricting based on the 2000 Census, the populations of the Grimes and McPherson Units made up nearly two thirds (64%) of District 5’s total population. After redistricting following the 2010 Census, due to a 2.4% drop in the county’s overall population and a rise in the prison population, the percentage of the district population made up by the incarcerated population rocketed to 87%.

Prison-based gerrymandering distorts democracy because including prison populations during redistricting inflates the political power of those voting in a prison district. Each of Jackson County’s Justice of the Peace districts should, based on the Census, have around 2000 people. According to the census, each district does have around that number; however, because of the inclusion of the Grimes and McPherson Units in District 5’s population, only 278 people out of the total population of 2055 are eligible to vote. This means that, even though District 5 has a voting population a fraction of a size of other districts, those 278 people are still able to elect a whole representative for themselves just like those in districts with 2000 voters. The inclusion of the prisons in the total population of District 5 artificially inflates the political power of the voters there because it gives 1 voter in District 5 the same say in county government as 7 voters in other districts. Redistricting is supposed to ensure that citizens are equally represented in government, but in places like Jackson County, the inclusion of prison populations during redistricting gives disproportionate influence to those in prison districts. In Arkansas, this problem is not limited to Jackson County; several other counties in the state also drew Justice of the Peace districts that were distorted by prison populations in the last redistricting cycle.

Fortunately, several states require that counties and municipalities exclude incarcerated populations during redistricting, and more than 100 county and municipal governments across the country choose to do this on their own. Four of those counties are in Arkansas: Lee, Lincoln, St. Francis, and Hot Spring counties all chose to modify 2010 Census data and leave out their prison populations during 2010 redistricting. Though it is encouraging that some states and many local governments have acted to prevent prison-based gerrymandering, ideally the Census Bureau should count incarcerate people at their home addresses in the first place, a solution that would eradicate the problem of prison-based gerrymandering nationwide.

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