New law builds on the previous measure that ended the practice in state legislative and congressional redistricting.

by Mike Wessler, March 16, 2022

Last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that strengthens the state’s anti-prison gerrymandering law by making it apply to city, county, and other local governments when they redistrict. Washington was the fifth state to end the practice in state legislative and congressional redistricting. By extending this law to local governments, Washington is now among the gold standard states that have ended prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering occurs because the Census Bureau erroneously counts all incarcerated people as residents of their prison cell rather than their home community. Most people in prison don’t come from communities where they are incarcerated and return to their home community after release. Because of their small size, local governments feel some of the most dramatic impacts of prison gerrymandering. When a city or county includes a prison’s population when redistricting, it gives residents who live closest to the prison significantly more political clout and diminishes the residents’ voices in other districts.

Under the law, when new census population data is released every ten years, the state redistricting commission will adjust the data to count incarcerated people in their home communities rather than where they are incarcerated. Local governments will then use this adjusted data to draw their new district lines rather than the data provided directly by the Census Bureau. The legislation applies only to redistricting and will not affect federal or state funding distributions.

While the law will not impact the current redistricting process, cities and counties that have not yet drawn new district lines can take steps on their own to draw more fair districts that do not use incarcerated people to pad populations. After the 2010 census, at least three Washington counties took part in prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem that can best be solved if the Census Bureau changed its policy to count incarcerated people as residents of their home communities rather than a prison cell. Roughly half of all residents of the United States now live in a city, county, or state that has addressed prison gerrymandering. The actions by Washington to strengthen its anti-prison gerrymandering laws add to the growing consensus that the Census Bureau should end this unjust practice once and for all.


Gov. Dan McKee signed into law new legislative districts that count many incarcerated people in their home districts.

February 23, 2022

Another state has moved to address prison gerrymandering. Last week, Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee signed into law new legislative and congressional districts that change how the state counts incarcerated people. Rhode Island is the second state whose redistricting commission has taken the initiative to address prison gerrymandering (after Pennsylvania last year). Eleven other states have also ended the practice through legislation. All told, roughly half of all U.S. residents now live in a state, county, or municipality that has rejected prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau erroneously counts all incarcerated people as residents of their prison cell rather than their home community. Most people in prison come from districts other than those in which they are incarcerated and return to those home districts after release. Incarcerated people typically have strong attachments to their home communities but no attachment to the community surrounding the prison. As a result, when states use Census counts to draw legislative districts, they inappropriately enhance the representation of people living in districts containing prisons.

However, unlike other states that have taken action, Rhode Island did not completely end prison gerrymandering. Instead of counting all incarcerated people at home when drawing new districts, the redistricting commission counted only people who, on Census Day (April 1, 2020), were either not yet sentenced or had less than two years remaining on their sentence. As a result, the state’s new legislative maps count only 44% of incarcerated people in their correct districts. (The change will not affect federal or state funding distributions.)

“These new districts are an important step in the fight to end prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island, but the work is not over. Lawmakers should finish the job of ending this injustice by passing legislation that will ensure the state counts all incarcerated people in their home districts when new districts are drawn in ten years,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “Rhode Island’s actions are yet another reason for the Census Bureau to join the growing consensus on the issue and count incarcerated people as residents of their homes, not their prison cells.”

a map showing the areas that have addressed prison gerrymandering

Prison gerrymandering has a particularly significant impact on communities of color in Rhode Island, where black people are incarcerated at a rate nine times higher than non-Hispanic whites, and Latinos are incarcerated at a rate three times higher than non-Hispanic whites.

The national movement to end prison gerrymandering began in 2001 when the founders of the Prison Policy Initiative discovered that the sheer size of the prison population was combining with an outdated Census Bureau rule to distort political representation in this country. Since then, more than a dozen states and over 200 local governments have taken action to address this problem.


Decision by redistricting commission means 44% of people incarcerated by the state will be counted in the right district

by Mike Wessler, January 10, 2022

It is almost time to add Rhode Island to the growing list of states that have taken steps to end prison gerrymandering. Last week, the state’s redistricting commission voted to count some of the people incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) in their home districts instead, when drawing state legislative and congressional districts. The bipartisan vote of 15-1 showed overwhelming support for what we hope is a first step toward ending prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island.

Although a small step, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Over the last two decades, advocates on the ground have led the charge to end prison gerrymandering, and this change represents the first concrete step taken by the state to draw districts that accurately and fairly count incarcerated people. That is something worth celebrating.

However, the work to end prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island is far from over. Rather than reallocating all people incarcerated at ACI back to their home communities, the state will only reallocate people who were either not yet sentenced on Census Day or people expected to be released by April 1, 2022. That means only 44% of people incarcerated at ACI will be counted in their home districts. It is an unfortunate and arbitrary choice to count such a small portion of people in their home community. The choice is even more frustrating when you remember state law says a person doesn’t stop being a resident of their home district when they are incarcerated. That is true whether someone is incarcerated for a day or a lifetime.

It’s imperfect progress, so what’s next?

The first step is finalizing the new maps in the state. In the coming weeks, the commission will produce its proposals. Then, this spring, the legislature will give the maps final consideration. After that, legislators should look to build upon and solidify the progress that has been made by passing legislation that ensures that all incarcerated people in the state are counted in their home communities for the purposes of drawing district lines in the coming decades.

Ultimately, though, the piecemeal actions taken by the Rhode Island Redistricting Commission are further evidence that the best way to end prison gerrymandering is for the Census Bureau to change the way it counts incarcerated people to end prison gerrymandering nationwide. Now that yet another state has joined the emerging consensus on this issue, there is even more reason for the Bureau to count incarcerated people at home in the first place.



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