In most states, except for Vermont and Maine, incarcerated citizens cannot vote. Yet inmates, for the purpose of determining voting representation, are counted in the population of the town that hosts the prison where they are held, rather than in their home communities. Now the national NAACP and its Connecticut state affiliate have sued in federal district court in Bridgeport to try to win a reversal of this practice.
It’s the first statewide lawsuit of its kind in the U.S., where there are currently more than 13,000 persons incarcerated in Connecticut. In addition to the NAACP, five individual voters are party to the lawsuit, including one formerly incarcerated person. The plaintiffs come from cities that have lost electoral representation due to this practice, which disproportionately affects people of color – especially African Americans.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Doni (“Donny”) Bloomfield, a student at Yale Law School’s Rule of Law Clinic, which is representing the NAACP, its Connecticut affiliate, and the individual local plaintiffs in this suit taking action to stop the state’s practice of what is known as prison gerrymandering. Here, Bloomfield explains the status of the lawsuit and what plaintiffs hope it will accomplish.
DONI BLOOMFIELD: What our clients are suing the state about is a practice called prison gerrymanderating. It’s a practice where the state uses incarcerated persons in allocating its legislative districts by counting them where they’re being held, instead of where they live and where they’re really from. How this harms our clients is that it dilutes the votes of people in the cities and the places where incarcerated people are ultimately from. The way you can look at that is that for every nine votes or so in some of these places where some of these prisons are located it takes ten votes to get the same electoral power for the larger districts in Connecticut, because even though incarcerated people are not allowed to vote, their bodies are counted towards the districting of these northern districts – predominantly white districts. And what you see is in the cities and in the predominantly African American and Latino communities where a lot of these incarcerated people are from, they are not having those people counted towards their electoral power.
BETWEEN THE LINES: So, not only does it dilute the voting power of the communities they come from, it adds to the voting power of where the prisons are located.
DONI BLOOMFIELD: Exactly. It’s this perverse double punch – it’s one of the ways we talk about it in the lawsuit, where you see these predominantly white areas having largely African Americans and Latinos very disproportionately being brought there and counted toward their electoral power, even though these folks can’t vote and that power and those votes are being taken away from the families and communities where these incarcerated people are ultimately from.
BETWEEN THE LINES: So, what are you trying to accomplish, exactly?
DONI BLOOMFIELD: We are trying to get the federal judge to declare this practice of prison gerrymandering unconstitutional under the 14th amendment, and ultimately have Connecticut stop it by counting incarcerated people where they’re really, truly residents instead of where they happen to be held.
BETWEEN THE LINES: And the 14th amendment, just remind us. Why do you claim it’s unconstitutional under that amendment?
DONI BLOOMFIELD: Sure. So, one of the clauses of the 14th amendment [is] equal protection under the law, and according to a number of Supreme Court cases, this is where the right to one person/one vote vests. So that protects the right of one person to equal power in their government, and that’s what we’re looking for here, where we don’t see that equal representation, because you have this vote dilution going on in the south and empowering these northern districts with the bodies of incarcerated people.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Now, when you say south and north, you’re talking about within the state of Connecticut, is that right?
DONI BLOOMFIELD: That’s right. So I’m talking about the cities of southern Connecticut, which is where most incarcerated people are from, and they’re shipped and held largely in a small number of cities like Somers and Enfield, in the north of Connecticut, which is where these prisons are located and which are predominantly white areas.
BETWEEN THE LINES: I wouldn’t even call them cities. They are little towns. So, has this ever been done before to your knowledge, anywhere in the country?
DONI BLOOMFIELD: There have been a very small number of federal lawsuits brought against prison gerrymandering; this is the first one that’s challenging on a statewide basis. There was a successful suit in Florida that challenged a municipal practice of prison gerrymandering, and there was a case in Rhode Island that was ultimately unsuccessful that was challenging a local practice of prison gerrymandering there. But this is the first statewide challenge that’s being brought.
BETWEEN THE LINES: It seems that for decades there was this tough on crime view by pretty much all politicians, and people in communities too. Now it’s shifting for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it’s ridiculous how we incarcerate a very high percentage of all the incarcerated people in the entire world. So I was wondering if you think the shift in that kind of perception of prisoners – in other words, instead of locking them up and throwing away the key – there seems to be more interest now in considering what happens when they get out, because most of them get out eventually. Do you think that will make a difference in what you’re trying to accomplish in your lawsuit?
DONI BLOOMFIELD: Definitely. And I think the NAACP really cares about the larger issues and the individual plaintiffs that we represent in this suit. They really care about criminal justice reform and they see this lawsuit as part of a broader effort to ultimately reduce some of the real terrible consequences that have resulted from these tough on crime measures and from these extremely long and arduous prison terms. We have formerly incarcerated people involved in this lawsuit, and one of our clients and many of them have family members who have gone through this. So I know this is an incredibly important issue to them, and they see this as part of a broader push to help rehabilitate folks after they get out of being incarcerated and as part of a broader push to see incarcerated people as people instead of just prisoners.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you say anything about the timeline?
DONI BLOOMFIELD: What’s happened so far is that last year the NAACP and the rest of our clients filed suit and then the state made a motion to dismiss. We responded and the issue is now sitting before the judge on whether to allow the suit to move forward and move forward hopefully to discovery, and ultimately to trial and hopefully a final verdict in our favor. So that’s where we stand right now; we’re waiting to hear from the judge on what the merits of the suit are to advance to the next stage.
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