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Dēmos and Prison Policy Initiative Applaud Senators Rosenberg, Chang-Diaz, and Dorcena Forry and Representatives Moran, Carvalho, and Rushing for Leadership to Protect One Person, One Vote Principle

September 30, 2014

Dēmos and Prison Policy Initiative Applaud Senators Rosenberg, Chang-Diaz, and Dorcena Forry and Representatives Moran, Carvalho, and Rushing for Leadership to Protect One Person, One Vote Principle

On September 12 2014, the Massachusetts legislature sent the United States Census Bureau a resolution adopted by both chambers, calling on the Census Bureau to reform its outdated practice of enumerating incarcerated persons as "residents" of the prisons in which they are temporarily incarcerated. This practice leads state and local governments to violate the constitutional principle of one person, one vote by granting additional undue political clout to voters who live near prisons and diluting the votes cast by everyone else. As the resolution explains:

"Census data results in distortions of the one-person, one-vote principle in drawing electoral districts in Massachusetts, diluting the representation of the majority of districts that do not contain prisons."

Massachusetts’ resolution urges the Census Bureau to provide states with redistricting data that counts incarcerated persons at their residential address.

In response to these developments, Dēmos and the Prison Policy Initiative, non-partisan public policy organizations concerned about fair electoral representation, released the following statement:

"A prison is not a home," said Brenda Wright, Vice President for Legal Strategies at Dēmos. "Prison-based gerrymandering distorts democracy and fair representation in Massachusetts, and should not be tolerated in our state. Dēmos applauds the leadership of Senators Rosenberg, Chang-Diaz, and Dorcena Forry and Representatives Moran, Carvalho, and Rushing in achieving passage of the resolution urging the Census Bureau to count incarcerated persons in their home communities, where they are considered to reside for virtually all legal purposes."

Dēmos and the Prison Policy Initiative have long partnered in the goal of ending prison-based gerrymandering. "The national trend in state and local governments of rejecting prison gerrymandering sends a clear message to the Census Bureau that it’s time to update the residence rules," said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. "I’m proud of the Massachusetts Legislature’s steps to urge the Census Bureau to end prison gerrymandering nationwide 2020."

During the public hearings on redistricting in Massachusetts following the 2010 Census, Dēmos and PPI were among many groups and individuals urging the Massachusetts legislature to add its voice to those of other stakeholders calling for change in how the Census Bureau enumerates incarcerated persons.

The Special Joint Committee on Legislative Redistricting in Massachusetts took note of these concerns in its final report (downloads PDF), devoting about a quarter of the redistricting report to the vote dilution caused by the Census Bureau's decision to tabulate incarcerated people as residents of the prison, and suggesting this resolution as their first key recommendation.

Dēmos and PPI strongly applaud the Massachusetts legislature for its leadership in adopting this recommendation and calling for permanent, nation-wide reform of how incarcerated persons are tabulated in the Census. The Massachusetts Legislature’s resolution sends a strong message that Massachusetts residents, and all U.S. voters, deserve to have a fair say in elections. It’s time for the Census Bureau to do its part.

The full text of the resolution is:

WHEREAS, obtaining an accurate count of the population is so vital to representative democracy that the framers of the United States Constitution addressed the issue of the census and apportionment in the opening paragraphs of the Constitution; and

WHEREAS, the Massachusetts Constitution requires that federal census data be the basis for state redistricting; and

WHEREAS, the Census Bureau currently has a policy of counting incarcerated people at the address of the correctional institution, even though for other legal purposes their home address remains their legal residence; and

WHEREAS, this Census data results in distortions of the one-person, one-vote principle in drawing electoral districts in Massachusetts, diluting the representation of the majority of districts that do not contain prisons;

WHEREAS, the simplest solution to the conflict between federal constitutional requirements of "one person, one vote" and Massachusetts constitutional requirements of using the federal census is for the Census Bureau to publish redistricting data based on the location of an incarcerated person’s residence, not prison location; and

WHEREAS, the Census Bureau has already recognized the demand from states and counties for data that better reflects their actual populations, and has agreed to release data on prison populations to states in time for redistricting, enabling some states to individually adjust the population data used for redistricting; and

WHEREAS, Public Law 94-171 requires the Census Bureau to work with states to provide geographically relevant data and the Census Bureau has been responsive to state’s data needs for the past 3 decades; now therefore be it

RESOLVED, that the Massachusetts General Court hereby urges the Census Bureau, in the next Census and thereafter, to provide states with redistricting data that counts incarcerated persons at their residential address, rather than the address of the correctional institution where they are temporarily located; and be it further

RESOLVED, that a copy of these resolutions be transmitted forthwith by the Clerk of the Senate to the Director of Census Bureau.


Census Bureau's ethnographic study recommends further research in counting incarcerated populations: suggests improvements to use of administrative data and a look at collection of home addresses.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 22, 2014

The next decennial census is still 6 years away, but the Census Bureau is already running tests and exploring areas for methodological improvement. As part of this process, the Bureau commissioned and released an ethnographic study of incarcerated populations that analyzed how the Census Bureau could count incarcerated people more efficiently while improving accuracy. Although technically not about tabulating incarcerated people at home, we think this ethnographic study fulfils an important prerequisite to the Bureau’s exploration of counting incarcerated people at their home addresses.

The authors describe how, unlike most Americans who fill out a Census form for themselves or their family, incarcerated people are often counted using facilities’ administrative records. This method is sometimes quicker and easier but often results in less accurate data.

But how well do these records serve Census purposes? Ultimately that is the question the authors sought to answer:

Does the use of administrative records meet the goals of the census of “counting everyone in the right place and the right time”? …As has been asserted repeatedly, administrative rosters in correctional systems meet the first half of the census requirements by counting everyone present in these group quarters on the day the rosters are obtained. They are less successful in meeting the next goal of everyone in the right place”….

…these administrative records are least successful in answering valuable questions about race and ethnicity and home addresses. Addressing these questions will provide specific directions for the planning of Census 2020 in correctional group quarters.

The study presented many examples of the shortcomings of administrative records, for example:

Misalignment between official census categories of race and ethnicity and the administrative rosters resulted in subjective, and often arbitrary, [Census form] completions.

While names, birthdays and gender are highly reliable in correctional administrative records, the mismatch between federal labels for race and ethnicity and widely variant labels used in these correctional systems illustrate the need to examine these important categories to improve census coverage.

Given some advanced planning, however, the use of administrative records could be a great time-saver for the Census Bureau (and correctional staff). Relying on administrative data could save the Census Bureau from having to visit each prison individually. Instead, the Bureau could simply have a single contact in a state’s Department of Corrections to gather census data for every facility under their jurisdiction. The authors explain how such an agency-level approach can benefit the Census Bureau:

Investing time in an agency approach presents additional benefits for accuracy and cost-savings. Working closely with agency programmers, preparation for the 2020 Census could result in more consistent definitions of the race and ethnic categories both across the system and with the established census categories. Gaining knowledge of the structure and content of these databases could also result in the development of “census subroutines” in electronic form, eliminating the need to code data from hard copies into census machine-readable forms.

Such an approach would not be appropriate for the over 3,000 county jails, with one exception. The large, urban jails are likely to maintain databases similar to these prisons and could be included in a modified agency approach.

Although technically outside the scope of the inquiry, the authors return to the issue of home addresses several times, recommending that “A separate study of the availability and accuracy of these records would have to be designed and implemented.” A recent report, published after the ethnographic study, by a New York Law School professor Erika L. Wood and Dēmos, Implementing Reform: How Maryland & New York Ended Prison Gerrymandering, tackles some of those questions.

The study also points out the internal dissonance in the way the Census Bureau interprets its residence rules for incarcerated people, especially those in jail:

For example, a person arrested at 11:00 p.m. on March 31 may appear on the roster on April 1 but released back into the community later in the day on April 1 and thus not meet any census definition of residence in the jail.

And as the authors point out, this incongruity also leads to a potential overcount of people incarcerated in jails:

Jails, with a high level of population turnover, may present a challenge as their inmates may be counted in both housing unit and GQ [correctional population] enumerations.

So far in this post I have described the parts of the report that are most relevant to our prison gerrymandering work, but I cannot stress enough the wealth of information found in this report on a wide range of issues relating to the enumeration of incarcerated populations. In addition to identifying a few main problems and making recommendations, the report includes a 10-page detailed documentation of the enumeration process in the facilities under study. These pages (section 4 and its subparts) shed light on the census process from the facilities’ perspective and provide great insight into possible approaches for improving future censuses.

The full report is certainly worth a read, and represents a great foundation for the Census Bureau’s potential progress toward more accurate enumeration of America’s incarcerated populations.

We run the numbers. It's almost everyone.

by Peter Wagner, August 21, 2014

Prison gerrymandering dilutes your right to vote in every level of government in which it operates, so basically the entire state benefits from reform. And, counter-intuitively, some of the biggest beneficiaries of ending prison gerrymandering are rural people who live near large prisons.

First, let’s take a step back and recall two key facts:

  1. Vote enhancement in the district with the largest prison dilutes the votes of the residents of every other district.

    Mathematically, the impact of crediting incarcerated people to the prison districts is larger than the impact of not crediting them at home because incarcerated people come from all over the state – albeit often disproportionately from some places rather than others – but the prisons concentrate these incarcerated people to a small number of locations. This creates some vote enhancement in every district that contains a prison, but even most of those districts’ residents get less representation than people in the one district with the largest prison population.

    And, the vote enhancement in the prison districts is generally so large that it disadvantages rural communities that neither contain prisons nor send very many people to prison almost as much as the typically urban district that loses the largest number of people to the Census Bureau’s prison miscount. In sum, the biggest harm from prison gerrymandering comes not from the vote dilution in the districts that send the largest numbers of people to prison, rather it comes from the larger vote enhancement in the handful of districts that contain the prisons.

  2. The effects of prison gerrymandering are the most dramatic at the state and local levels of government because these districts tend to have the smallest populations.

    While a cluster of large prisons typically has a negligible effect on a Congressional district of 700,000 people, the impact of a single 1,000-person prison can be massive in a county commission district of only 1,200 people. District sizes vary, but in general you can think of Congressional districts as generally being the largest, and in order of decreasing typical size, state senate districts, state house districts, county districts, and finally city districts and school boards.

    So if prison gerrymandering benefits the residents of a particular district, wouldn’t that mean that every state has hundreds of thousands of people who live in such districts and have a vested interest in protecting their unearned political clout during redistricting? Actually, no.

    While there are a lot of people who benefit at the state senate level, many of those same residents see larger harms at the level of the state house and local government districts.

Here are some calculations we ran last fall that illustrate how this works:

When New York was still engaging in prison gerrymandering in 2002, Senate District 45 contained 12,989 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and was 4.34% incarcerated, giving the residents of that district extra influence in comparison with the 61 other rural, and suburban and urban districts that have no or fewer prisons within their borders. But not all residents of the 45th Senate District benefit from prison gerrymandering equally. Less than half (44%) of the district lived in the 114th Assembly District which was 6.99% incarcerated. The remainder of people who lived in Senate District 45 were in two Assembly districts that contained far fewer prison cells than the 114th.

All three counties in the 114th Assembly District contain prisons, but the vast majority (88%) of the residents of that district live in County Board of Supervisors, County Board of Legislators, or County Legislature districts that do not contain the largest prisons. New York’s decision to outlaw prison gerrymandering ended the resulting vote dilution in one or more levels of government that had been plaguing all but roughly 15,300 people in a state of 19 million. And, of course, all 19 million people benefit when the democratic process improves.

New York Senate District 45, Assembly District 114, and on the third map, Franklin County Board of Legislators District 3/Clinton County Legislature District 2. Essex County is outlined in that map but the Essex County Board of Supervisors district with the largest prison is not pictured because that district is not within Assembly District 114. Note that each of these districts may appear large on the map, but the number of people living in these areas is quite small (and the U.S. Constitution requires us to base districts on population, not land area).

Or, to say it another way, prison gerrymandering is bad for 99.92% of the people living in New York State. And New York isn’t alone. I found the same thing when I analyzed to Rhode Island’s districts. Out of the entire state, only 112 people simultaneously live in the state senate district and the state house district with the largest prison population. Everyone else in the state has their vote diluted in one or both chambers as a result of prison gerrymandering.

This animated illustration overlays a map of all of the Rhode Island Senate districts that do not contain the largest prison populations and a map of the house districts that do not contain the largest prison populations over a map of the Cranston area.

If we superimpose the Cranston City Council Ward map over the map of the state house and state senate districts discussed above, we see that even most ward 6 residents — who dramatically benefit from prison gerrymandering at the city council — have their votes diluted in one chamber of the state legislature:

Only 112 non-incarcerated residents of Cranston Ward 6 who benefit from prison gerrymandering in the city council do not also live in a state house or state senate district where their votes are diluted by prison gerrymandering.

So what portion of Rhode Island will benefit from ending prison gerrymandering? It’s 99.989% of the people. That’s no doubt a large part of why the Rhode Island Senate last session unanimously passed a bill that would end prison gerrymandering in the state. (And why the House hasn’t passed that bill is a discussion for another day.)

by Bernadette Rabuy, August 20, 2014

report thumbnailNew York Law School professor Erika L. Wood and Dēmos recently released a report, Implementing Reform: How Maryland & New York Ended Prison Gerrymandering. In her report, she shares how Maryland and New York corrected the Census Bureau prison miscount. The Bureau counts incarcerated individuals as if they were residents of their prison cells even though most states bar incarcerated people from voting and most state constitutions and statutes say that a prison cell is not a residence.

As the executive summary in Erika Woods’ excellent report says:

In 2010 and 2011, Maryland and New York took bold steps to correct the problem known as prison gerrymandering, a problem resulting from the United States Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated individuals as residents of their prison cells rather than their home communities. When legislative districts are drawn based on the census numbers, incarcerated individuals become “ghost constituents” of districts that contain prisons. Although in forty-eight states incarcerated individuals cannot vote, have no ties to the local community, are often hundreds of miles from home, and spend an average of just three years in prison, they are allocated to legislative districts in a way that artificially inflates the political power of the districts where the prisons are located, while their home communities—often predominantly poor and minority—suffer the inverse effects of losing representation and voting strength for a decade.

Although the Census Bureau did not change its practice of counting incarcerated individuals in prison on a national level for the 2010 census, Maryland and New York took responsibility for correcting this injustice in their states. In doing so, these two states not only conducted an important experiment in policy innovation, but also demonstrated how various state and local agencies can work together to successfully implement new and important policy reforms to alleviate the problem of prison gerrymandering.

The efforts and coordination by state policymakers, corrections officials, data experts, technicians, planning personnel and lawyers was exemplary and should serve as an inspiration to those across the country who want to take a stand to end this injustice. As a result of their efforts and for the first time in history, the legislative and local districts in Maryland and New York are no longer distorted by prison gerrymandering.

This report provides detailed information about the specific steps Maryland and New York took to implement these new laws based on the 2010 census in conjunction with their redistricting schedules. It details the challenges each state faced as the first in the country to implement this reform—including legal disputes and data deficiencies—and the steps taken to meet and overcome those challenges. It also provides concrete recommendations, based on the experience and expertise of the actors in each state, to assist other jurisdictions in permanently ending prison gerrymandering.

Cranston's 2012 redistricting plan for the City Council and School Committee violates the one person, one vote principle of the U.S. Constitution.

February 19, 2014

Plan violates ‘one person, one vote’ principle of the U.S. Constitution

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Steven Brown, ACLU of Rhode Island,, 401 831-7171
Alex Amend, Dēmos,, 917-822-7405
Aleks Kajstura, Prison Policy Initiative,, 413-527-0845
Inga Sarda-Sorensen, ACLU National,, 212-549-2666

CRANSTON, R.I. — Local residents joined the ACLU of Rhode Island today to sue the City of Cranston, charging that the 2012 redistricting plan for the City Council and School Committee violates the one person, one vote principle of the U.S. Constitution by counting incarcerated people in their prison location as if they were all residents of Cranston.

Because those incarcerated were counted as Cranston residents, three voters in the prison’s district have as much voting power as four voters in every other city district, according to Census Bureau data. Cranston residents Karen Davidson, Debbie Flitman, Eugene Perry, and Sylvia Weber have joined the ACLU of Rhode Island as plaintiffs in the case. They are represented in federal court by Dēmos, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Plaintiff Davidson said today: “As a long-time resident and taxpayer of Cranston, I am deeply concerned that the City Council decided in 2012 to perpetuate this voting inequity, especially after the ACLU pointed out the constitutional problems with it. It is time for city officials to show some leadership and stop wasting taxpayers’ money defending themselves from legal challenges like this.”

The 2012 redistricting plan counted the population of Rhode Island’s only state prison complex, the Adult Correctional Institutions, as residents of Ward 6 even though the overwhelming majority of these individuals are not true residents of the district, but instead remain residents of their pre-incarceration community for virtually all legal purposes, including voting.

“Using the people incarcerated at the ACI to pad the resident population of Ward 6 is not only irrational, but also unconstitutional. Over 200 municipalities and counties across the country actively avoid this ‘prison gerrymandering’ when redistricting,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director at the Prison Policy Initiative. “There is no reason for Cranston to give extra representation to a select group of residents just because they happen to live near a prison.”

According to Census Bureau data, without the incarcerated population, Ward 6 has only 10,209 true constituents. Yet those constituents now wield the same political power as the roughly 13,300 constituents in each of the other wards. This dilutes the voting strength and political influence of citizens residing outside of Ward 6, in clear violation of the Equal Protection requirements of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“The people incarcerated in Cranston cannot vote in local elections, visit with their elected officials, or use the public library,” said Adam Lioz, Demos counsel. “So, they should not be used to pad districts, skewing voting power in violation of the one person, one vote principle. The City Council should do the right thing and correct its redistricting process.”

“All the voters of Cranston should have an equal say in who their elected officials should be. When a citizen exercises their fundamental right to vote, they expect that their vote will be counted equally, not as if it were only three-fourths of another citizen’s vote. Cranston elected officials should stop playing games and restore fairness to the democratic system,” said Sean Young, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown said, “In 2012, the ACLU testified before the City Council and urged members to draw district lines in a way that would protect the principle of ‘one person-one vote.’ More than 200 counties and municipalities facing prison gerrymandering have pro-actively addressed the problem. It is unfortunate that the Cranston City Council refused to do so, leaving us no choice but to file this lawsuit.”

The complaint, Davidson v. City of Cranston, was filed in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island. A copy of the complaint is here:

The lawsuit is being handled locally by ACLU of RI volunteer attorney Lynette Labinger, who only two years ago in a highly-publicized case successfully sued Cranston officials over the display of a prayer banner in a high school auditorium.


"[Prison gerrymandering] distorts the political process and raises concerns about the fairness of the census process itself."

by Leah Sakala, September 27, 2013

Thumbnail of New York Times editorial

The New York Times published a strong editorial today calling on the Census Bureau to end prison gerrymandering by tabulating incarcerated people at their home addresses in 2020:

[Prison gerrymandering] distorts the political process and raises concerns about the fairness of the census process itself. That’s reason enough for the bureau to solve this problem now.

The Bureau is aware of our organizations' concerns about prison gerrymandering, but side-stepped our request to prioritize developing a solution.

by Peter Wagner, May 17, 2013

Acting Director explains Bureau’s immediate priorities but sidesteps request to prioritize developing a solution to prison gerrymandering

The Census Bureau has replied to the February 14 letter from 210 organizations urging it to make “developing a methodology to tabulate incarcerated people at their home addresses a near-term priority.” I wanted to share the Census Bureau’s response, along with some of my thoughts about it. In a nutshell, the Bureau is aware of our organizations’ concerns about prison gerrymandering, but side-stepped our request to prioritize developing a solution.

Our coalition letter was intended to inform the Census Bureau that a diverse group of stakeholders wants the agency to start planning how to tabulate incarcerated people at home. In our view, the Bureau needs to recognize that the prison count is the largest and most visible failing with regard to where it tabulates people in the decennial enumeration, and start researching solutions now.

But in his reply to our letter, Acting Director Thomas Mesenbourg explained that the Bureau would not focus, in the near term, specifically on the issue of where the census tabulates incarcerated people. Instead, Mr. Mesenbourg described how researching solutions to prison gerrymandering fits into the Bureau’s current longer-term agenda: as one part of a much broader inquiry on residence rules that will take place — budget permitting — in Fiscal Year 2015. That falls far short of what we asked for, but the clarity of the Bureau’s response is helpful in determining our next steps. I wanted to share some further thoughts about the Acting Director’s letter, and some ideas moving forward.

The Bureau’s immediate priorities

The reply letter nicely summarizes the overall challenges the Bureau faces to maintain the quality of the decennial census while controlling costs, listing the four areas where the Bureau is currently focusing its energy. The Bureau then gives an update on an important moving target: exactly when research on improving the group quarters count could take place.

The problem of prison gerrymandering may be one of the most glaring defects in the Census, but, as the reply letter explains, the Bureau is instead prioritizing work on fundamental changes in the structure and operations of the decennial census in order to trim several billion dollars from the cost. I can see how the Census Bureau might, in contrast, view improving the tabulation of just one group of people — no matter how glaring the problem — as a lower priority.

The strategic challenge for our movement is not the complexity of the research required, it is the timing. Improving how incarcerated people are counted is not rocket science, but it does requires diligent planning. After all, people in prisons and jails are the only population in the country that the government counts multiple times every day. The Bureau needs sufficient time to find solutions to legitimate questions about the best way to collect and process these data.

In the reply letter, the Acting Director says that “research [on] other aspects” of the 2020 Census can begin only after the “high-level design” is completed, in 2015. This delay is potentially, though not definitively, problematic for the efforts to end prison gerrymandering by the next redistricting cycle. 2015 isn’t necessarily too late to begin researching how to tabulate incarcerated people at home in 2020, but it leaves a very small window of opportunity because the details of the 2020 Census will be locked in place long before 2020 rolls around. Unless the Bureau articulates a clear intent to pursue methods to tabulate incarcerated people at their homes of record, the passage of time will leave the Bureau will no choice but to continue its outdated methodology in the 2020 Census.

No clear statement on research priorities

While our letter acknowledged the Bureau’s budgetary challenges, our letter asked the Bureau to include ending prison gerrymandering in its near-term priorities. Unfortunately, the reply did not address the matter of priorities directly or explain why the Bureau can’t begin the process of planning improved ways to tabulate incarcerated people while it completes redesigning other components of the Census. Supporters of the constitutional principle of “One Person, One Vote” should be very concerned by the prospect of relegating the question of how incarcerated people are counted — the most visible fairness flaw in the decennial census — to only one piece of a larger research question that will not start until 2015, budget permitting.

The Role of Congress and the Bureau’s fear of controversy

The Census Bureau has the power to end prison gerrymandering, and the letter’s summary of the Bureau’s residence rules methodology since the Census Act of 1790 supports our position that the Bureau has the authority to revise its methodology to keep pace with social and demographic change. The question of where to tabulate incarcerated people is clearly within the Bureau’s discretion, but, as the Acting Director noted, the Bureau looks to Congress before making any changes that could be vulnerable to criticism.

Unfortunately, this fear of political controversy may be leading the Census Bureau to prioritize the consequences of changing the residence rule over the consequences of the status quo for the health of our democracy. The Acting Director’s one nod to the rule’s larger implications for democracy is that “[w]e understand fully the major impact on different states as well as counties and municipalities … [during] redistricting if we considered changing the residence rule” (emphasis added). Ironically, the Bureau’s own commissioned experts at the National Research Council of The National Academies had no such problem acknowledging the need for change, noting the current rule’s detrimental impact on democracy. During last decade’s review of the residence rules, the expert panel concluded that “[t]he evidence of political inequities in redistricting that can arise due to the counting of prisoners at the prison location is compelling.”

Even as the Acting Director’s reply letter stating that the Bureau “must inform and try to ascertain the will of the Congress on such a major change” was in the mail to me, the Census Bureau received evidence of congressional concern about the Bureau’s current policy. On April 1, 2013, 18 members of Congress wrote to the Bureau about why properly tabulating incarcerated people is important to state and local governments. They wrote, “We… urge the Census Bureau to take the steps necessary to ensure that Census 2020 counts prisoners at their home addresses to assist state and local governments in accurately representing these populations.”

Finally, the Bureau’s concern that “major change … regarding apportionment” necessitates the assent of Congress is a red herring. Congressional apportionment is unlikely to be affected by tabulating incarcerated people at home because most people do not cross state lines when they are incarcerated.

Moving forward

But beyond congressional weigh-in, the Census Bureau wants to get the input of as many stakeholders as possible before making a change to where incarcerated populations are counted. That is yet another reason why the comparatively straightforward activity of improving where incarcerated people are tabulated needs to start sooner rather than later.

Finally, the Bureau’s reply is a good indication of how much work we have left to do to establish why it is necessary to change where incarcerated people are tabulated. The letter, in my view, both understates the impact of prison gerrymandering on local and state governments and undervalues the Bureau’s own significant efforts to help those local governments by producing the Advance Group Quarters Summary File. This file, which the Bureau produced for the first time ever in 2010, was incredibly helpful to many state and local governments that wanted to eliminate, minimize or at least consider avoiding the effects of prison gerrymandering.

The driving reason to address prison gerrymandering is its dramatic impact on state and local governments. It is easy to understand why the Census Bureau, as a federal agency, might prioritize questions of congressional apportionment over state legislative, and even county/municipal, redistricting. But congressional apportionment is not the primary concern because prison populations are rarely significant in determining a 700,000 person Congressional district. The real impact of prison gerrymandering is at the state legislative level and, especially, at the county/municipal level. The smaller the legislative district, the more likely it is that a single prison could make up a large part, or even an actual majority, of the district. Taken together, prison gerrymandering’s impact is pervasive, and the overwhelming majority of the nation will benefit in at least one way when the practice comes to an end. As general messaging point, our movement needs to ensure that the real reasons to end prison gerrymandering remain in focus.

Moving forward, it is imperative that the Census Bureau continue to hear from all of its stakeholders — at the federal, state and local levels — that now is the time to address the problem of prison gerrymandering in order to resolve the problem by 2020. We shouldn’t have to wait until 2030 to fix such an obvious flaw in the Census Bureau’s methodology that compromises state and local democracy around the nation.

210 civil rights, voting rights and criminal justice organizations sent a letter calling on the U.S. Census Bureau to seize a timely opportunity to research alternative ways to count incarcerated people in the decennial Census.

February 14, 2013


Leah Sakala, Prison Policy Initiative, (413) 527-0845
Lauren Strayer, Dēmos, Lauren Strayer, (212) 389-1413

Easthampton, MA – Today, more than 200 civil rights, voting rights and criminal justice organizations sent a letter calling on the U.S. Census Bureau to seize a timely opportunity to research alternative ways to count incarcerated people in the decennial Census.

letter thumbnail

The letter expresses a national concern that the Bureau’s method of counting incarcerated people at prison locations, rather than in their home communities, leads to an unequal distribution of political power in state and local governments known as “prison gerrymandering.” The letter explains that incarcerated people are not considered residents of prisons for other purposes, but the Census Bureau’s method “concentrates a population that is disproportionately male, urban, and African-American or Latino in approximately 1,500 federal and state prisons that are far from their home communities.” The 210 organizations wrote, “We are concerned that the Census Bureau’s tabulation procedures distort the redistricting process, giving extra political influence to people who live near prisons while diluting the votes of residents in every other legislative district.”

Although the 2020 Census is seven years away, the Census Bureau is already deep in the planning process. The letter calls on the Bureau to pave the way for a national end to prison gerrymandering in 2020 by prioritizing research on how to count incarcerated people at home in the next census. “In order to develop the best possible methodology for fixing prison gerrymandering, the Census Bureau needs to address this research question now,” said Brenda Wright, Vice President of Legal Strategies at Dēmos.

The letter charges that “…Failing to count incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes undermines the constitutional guarantee of ‘one person, one vote’, with critical implications for the health of our democracy.” For that reason, the organizations note, four states and more than 200 counties and municipalities have made their own adjustments to Census Bureau data in order to avoid prison gerrymandering. But while state and local governments are increasingly devising their own solutions, many face unique constraints and only the Census Bureau can implement a comprehensive and standardized national solution.

The letter credits the Census Bureau with recognizing that prison gerrymandering causes significant problems for state and local redistricting. Specifically, the Bureau began to address the problem by releasing 2010 Census data on prison populations ahead of schedule in order to allow state and local governments to adjust their redistricting data to avoid prison gerrymandering. “The Bureau has made great progress towards enabling state and local governments to find creative solutions to prison gerrymandering,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, “and now the Bureau must use the current planning period to ensure that the 2010 Census is the last one to tabulate two million incarcerated people outside their home communities.

The full text of the letter, including a list of signers, is available at

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.”

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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.

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