Census Bureau Prison Gerrymandering Distorts Political Representation

Interview with Mike Wessler, communications director, Prison Policy Initiative, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The U.S. Census Bureau counts incarcerated individuals as residents of the prisons where they’re being confined rather than as residents of the communities they come from. That’s called prison gerrymandering and the practice takes electoral clout away mostly from cities where prisoners come from and bestows more political power to the almost always rural areas where prisons are located. There’s also a racial component, as Blacks and Latinos make up a disproportionate share of the prison population, and correctional facilities are located overwhelmingly in white areas. Now, more states and counties are moving to count incarcerated individuals in their home districts, rather than in prison communities for the purpose of the census.

The National Conference of State Legislatures recently put out a new report detailing the experiences and recommendations from states that have implemented reforms in the post-2020 Census redistricting cycle. The report makes clear that the distortions caused by prison gerrymandering were created by the U.S. government and that Congress must take steps to address the problem.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Mike Wessler, communications director with the Prison Policy Initiative, about the report and the somewhat surprising jurisdictions that have barred the use of prison gerrymandering among the 1.9 million persons held in America’s jails, prisons and immigration detention centers.

MIKE WESSLER: Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people in the wrong place. It counts them as residents of a prison cell rather than residents of their home community. And this is despite the fact that people who are incarcerated likely won’t be at the same period for the entire 10-year period. They’ll be bounced around from prison to prison. They don’t consider a prison cell their home. They have no social ties there. They’re not likely to remain in that community once they are released. Instead, they are likely to return to where they came from.

Unfortunately, this has been the way the Census Bureau has always counted incarcerated people. This issue first kind of came on the radar about two decades ago, and over the last 20 years we’ve worked to raise awareness about it and try to pressure the Census Bureau to change how it counts incarcerated people. We’ve had immense success over the last 20 years.

Right now, about half the country lives in a place – a city, a county or a state – that’s taken action to count people at home, that recognizes that counting incarcerated people as residents of a prison cell distorts political representation and wanted to fix it. This isn’t just about numbers. It’s about political representation, because when the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people at the wrong place, every ten years when state and local governments redraw their legislative lines and city or county commission lines, it artificially inflates the populations of areas that contain prisons at the expense of everyone else. And what that ends up doing is it gives residents of those districts that contain prisons greater political clout, more political say in the decisions that are made in our government at the expense of everyone else.

So the National Conference of State Legislatures looked at the 2020 redistricting cycle and looked at the states that had undertaken these reforms to see how well they did and what their experience was. And the overwhelming consensus among the states was, This is important, making sure that everyone has equal political representation is important and worthwhile doing, but the Census Bureau policies make it harder for us to do that, and the Census Bureau ultimately should change those policies to just count incarcerated people at their true homes.

MELINDA TUHUS: We should say that the people incarcerated are disproportionately people of color and that disproportionately come from urban areas, and that, I think, prisons overwhelmingly or at certainly a majority, are in white rural areas that tend to be much more conservatively politically than the areas that people who are imprisoned come from, is that right?

MIKE WESSLER: Yeah, there are parts of that statement that are true and there are parts – there are kind of nuances about the changing dynamics of incarceration in this country. The one thing that is undeniably true is that prisons tend to be located in rural communities that are largely white, and those are the communities that benefit from prison gerrymandering, and they benefit at the expense of everyone else in the state. We’ve done a series of studies on the states that ended prison gerrymandering to look at where incarcerated people actually come from. And the key finding from those studies is that, Yes, the majority of people do come from urban areas and are Black and brown. That’s undeniable. But the thing that was interesting was that not only did incarcerated people come from literally every community throughout every state we looked at, many of the rural communities actually had higher incarceration rates per capita than some of the urban areas, showing that a lot of communities that often are considered conservative are truly suffering and losing political representation because of prison gerrymandering. So this is an issue that really cuts across the traditional divides of redistricting politics in that every community is suffering from because they’re losing a little bit of representation to one specific community or a handful of specific communities that have prisons.

So, to kind of sum that up, yes, Black brown and urban communities are losing the vast majority of people to mass incarceration. On a per capita rate, a lot of these poor rural areas are also losing a high percentages of their population to incarceration as well.

MELINDA TUHUS: Okay, well that’s more nuanced, I see.

MIKE WESSLER: We think there’s been immense pressure that’s built on the Census Bureau to change its policy, both because more states have taken on these reforms and this movement has really become kind of a bipartisan movement.

Just a few weeks ago, Montana, a state that has been in the headlines lately for some fairly conservative policies that they’ve pushed, nearly unanimously passed reforms to end prison gerrymandering in the state. The Republican governor signed that bill into law. It was not a topic of much debate or contention. It was something that everyone agreed was the right thing to do.

For more information, visit the Prison Policy Initiative and the Prison Gerrymandering Project.

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