Thanks to your support, we've put the problem of prison gerrymandering – and the solutions -- squarely on the national agenda.

by Peter Wagner, December 21, 2012

It’s happening! The national movement to end prison-based gerrymandering took huge strides forward in 2012. Some of the victories were easy to see, like in June when the Supreme Court upheld Maryland’s first-in-the-nation law that did what the Census Bureau had refused to do: count incarcerated people as residents of their homes for redistricting purposes.

Other victories were more subtle, like when the Maryland victory this summer finally energized the editorial boards of the Hartford Courant and the Norwich Bulletin to criticize the Connecticut legislature for twice failing to pass the bill to end prison-based gerrymandering, and to demand that the legislature pass it in the next session.

And flying under the national radar are the more than 200 rural counties and cities that have taken a stand against prison-based gerrymandering when drawing county and municipal districts. Impediments to further reform are falling quickly. For example, this year the Virginia legislature unanimously changed state law to give more counties in that state the option to avoid prison-based gerrymandering.

A decade ago, the problem of prison-based gerrymandering was almost entirely hidden. Today, thanks to your support, we’ve put the problem – and the solutions — squarely on the national agenda. Your moral encouragement and financial investment has helped to build my law school project into a national movement that is permanently improving how our democracy works. The research and the outreach you helped fund has enabled us to build a network of hundreds of organizational allies and elected officials across the country, and has won us the ear of the Census Bureau.

As I describe in my Washington Post op-ed, the next Census in 2020 sounds far away, but the key planning is underway now. Together, our movement is making sure that the handful of legislative districts with prisons will no longer be able to dominate the political process.

Our research and advocacy – and this blog – is at the center of this national movement. Our support comes from two foundations and a small network of individual donors. Can you join those donors in making a tax-deductible contribution to support our work today? Thank you for being part of this movement!


Drew finds a great way to explain who loses and who benefits from prison-based gerrymandering in his home state of North Carolina

by Drew Kukorowski, December 19, 2012

Editor’s note: Drew prepared this article shortly before he wrapped up his work with us last week. We’re grateful for the huge contributions he made! -Leah Sakala

Here at Prison Policy Initiative we’re always trying to think of better ways to explain the problem of prison gerrymandering to folks who may not have heard about it before. Prison gerrymandering is the practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prisons that detain them, and then using those numbers when election districts are redrawn in order to comply with the Supreme Court’s one person-one vote requirement.

When I first heard about this “miscount,” I wasn’t sure exactly who was harmed by it. Normally, we think that living next door to a prison is undesirable; in this situation, though, living next door to the prison is highly beneficial. That’s because the votes of people who live next door to a prison carry more weight than the votes of people who live in non-prison districts. I’m from North Carolina, and there’s a great example of this problem back home that helped me understand the harm caused by prison gerrymandering.

There’s only one federal prison in North Carolina. But it’s a big one — FCI Butner just north of Durham in Granville County. In 2010, the Census counted about 4,500 people as residents of the Butner prison complex. But none of those incarcerated people can vote, and the vast majority don’t come from North Carolina, much less from Granville County (e.g., Bernie Madoff). Nonetheless, the Census counts them as residents of Granville County, and the county used those numbers to balance their county commissioner and school board districts during the last round of redistricting.

In the example I found, the people who live near the federal prison in Granville County get twice as much political influence as people who don’t. The Granville County commissioner and school board district — District 3 — with the big federal prison complex is about 50% incarcerated (52.5% to be exact). This is a huge benefit to the actual residents of District 3, but harms the residents of every other district in the county. That’s because the commissioner and school board member from the prison district only have to serve about 4,000 actual constituents. In all the other districts in the county, though, the commissioners and school board members each serve about 8,500 constituents. This means that you have less access to your elected representatives if you don’t live in the prison district. Or to put it another way, every 47 residents of the prison district have as much political power as 100 residents in other districts.

Smaller but still important is the effect of prison gerrymandering on state representative and senatorial districts. Newly drawn NC House District 2 is about 6.7% incarcerated if you take into account the federal and state prisons in Butner (there’s a state prison across the street from the federal prison that has about 1,000 inmates). And the new NC Senate District 20 is about 3% incarcerated. Again, the residents of those districts have more access to their state representatives because those representatives don’t have as many real constituents to serve as the representatives from districts without prisons.

While Granville County didn’t address its prison gerrymandering problem this time around, maybe it will in 2020. After all, there are more than 200 counties and cities around the country with prisons that decided not to use the prison populations when redrawing their district lines. To be fair, Granville County is required to submit its redistricting changes to the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, and it was concerned that removing its prison population might raise a red flag with the U.S. Department of Justice. But of the 200 counties and cities that avoided prison gerrymandering, about 90 were required to have their plans approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, and all received that approval. Or maybe the North Carolina General Assembly will pass legislation – like Maryland and New York, have – mandating that state and local governments draw election districts based on their real populations. Maybe if Mr. Madoff runs for that school board seat then Granville County will realize that it’s absurd to count prisoners as local residents.


The Report from the Chairs of the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting concludes that action at the Bureau is the "most expedient and streamlined avenue" towards ending prison gerrymandering.

by Peter Wagner, December 12, 2012

Report from the Chairs of the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting

The Co-Chairs of the Massachusetts Special Joint Committee on Redistricting today issued a report reviewing their accomplishments and their recommendations on issues they discovered while redrawing the Massachusetts district lines.

Senate Chair Stanley Rosenberg and House Chair Michael J. Moran devote about a quarter of their report to reviewing the vote dilution caused by the Census Bureau’s decision to tabulate incarcerated people as residents of the prison location instead of at their legal home addresses. The current system, the report observes, “inflates the relative strength of votes by residents in that district [containing a prison] at the expense of voters in all other districts in the Commonwealth.”

The co-chairs discuss the unique requirements of the Massachusetts constitution, noting that it would be theoretically possible to propose a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to end prison gerrymandering by state legislation. They conclude, however, that the “most expedient and streamlined avenue” towards a solution is for the Census Bureau to tabulate incarcerated people at their home addresses. Action at the Census Bureau would ensure a “systematic and consistent tabulation approach” that would relieve legislatures of the burden of each adjusting their own redistricting data.

The message is clear:

“The tabulation of prisoners should be at the forefront of Bureau priorities in evaluating and adjusting how the 2020 U.S. Census will be conducted.”

“We agree that the way prisoners are currently counted does a disservice to the state and should be changed.”

But the co-chairs did not intend the report to be the final word on the matter. The very first recommendation in the report is a call for the Massachusetts legislature to:

“Pass a resolution by the General Court requesting that the U.S. Census Bureau change the residency classification for counting prisoners at their legal residence prior to incarceration. The Legislature could consider a constitutional amendment in the event the federal government does not act on our recommendations.”

For more information, see:


The movement to end prison gerrymandering had its best year ever in 2012. Can you help us keep the momentum up in 2013?

by Peter Wagner, December 7, 2012

The movement to end prison gerrymandering had its best year ever in 2012. Can you help us keep the momentum up in 2013?

Our biggest victory was widely-publicized when the Supreme Court upheld Maryland’s first-in-the-nation law ending prison gerrymandering. We won a quieter victory when the Virginia legislature unanimously changed state law to give more counties in that state the option to avoid prison gerrymandering. And you saw in last week’s newsletter that more than 200 rural counties and municipalities have responded to the call to end prison gerrymandering in their own districts.

Our research and advocacy – and this newsletter – is at the center of this national movement. Our support comes from two foundations and a small network of individual donors. Can you join those donors in making a tax-deductible contribution to support our work today? Thank you for being part of this movement!



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