by Aleks Kajstura, May 14, 2021

On Wednesday, the Connecticut General Assembly passed SB 753, a bill that will strengthen state democracy by requiring that incarcerated people be counted as residents of their hometowns, not their prison cells, at redistricting time. If Governor Ned Lamont signs the bill, it will make Connecticut the eleventh state to end the practice known as prison gerrymandering.

This victory is the result of years-long efforts by Senator Gary Winfield and advocates including Common Cause Connecticut, the NAACP of Connecticut, and the Yale Law Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic. The law will go into effect for this year’s redistricting process, bringing an immediate end to the prison-driven distortion of representation in Connecticut.

A New York Times editorial, a federal bill, and other encouraging updates from our fight to make sure incarcerated people are counted in the right place.

by Wanda Bertram, April 16, 2021

This week, the Editorial Board of The New York Times called on states and the federal government to end prison gerrymandering, the practice of drawing legislative districts around large prisons and counting the people inside as legitimate constituents. As the Editorial Board remarked, this practice

“makes no sense, because virtually everyone who goes to prison comes from somewhere else, and almost all will return there after being released. While they are behind bars, they can’t vote, nor do they have any attachment to the local community or its elected officials…The result is one of the more persistent and pernicious distortions in the redistricting process.”

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The bad news is that with redistricting just around the corner, policymakers are running out of time to prevent another 10 years of prison-driven election distortion. The good news is that momentum is rapidly building to fix the problem in several local, state, and federal lawmaking bodies, as well as in the national media:

  • Connecticut, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Missouri are all considering bills that would require state and local redistricting officials to count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses.
  • Federal bill H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” contains clauses that would end prison gerrymandering nationally — forever — by requiring the Census Bureau to change how it counts incarcerated people. As the NYT editorial correctly notes, this is by far the most efficient solution to prison gerrymandering. However, even if H.R. 1 passes this year, it won’t fix the problem until the 2030 Census.
  • A small storm of recent press coverage is bringing public attention to prison gerrymandering, including a powerful oped in The Boston Globe, a deep dive published in The New Republic, and a flurry of articles from Connecticut about its new bill.
  • State and local governments are also considering solutions that don’t require legislation. Cities and counties can simply choose to exclude prison populations when they draw new legislative districts this year, a solution that hundreds of local governments have already chosen. Meanwhile, state redistricting officials can divide up their prison populations among multiple districts to ensure that no one district claims a disproportionate number of incarcerated people.

If you live in a state that still hasn’t taken action, you may wonder what the options are for ending prison gerrymandering where you live this year. Again, there is good news and bad news. Most states have run out of time to introduce new bills this year that would take effect before the 2021 redistricting process begins. But all states still have time to limit prison gerrymandering this year through non-legislative means (the solution described in the fourth bullet above). And the stakes have never been higher. In the words of the Times Editorial Board: “A healthy representative democracy needs an accurate picture of who lives where in order to allocate the proper number of lawmakers to represent their interests.”

Learn more about what your state is doing to end prison gerrymandering at

Advocates will find Abdallah Fayyad’s new Boston Globe column a useful article to distribute to policymakers, as a concise explainer about why ending prison gerrymandering is important this year.

by Wanda Bertram, March 25, 2021

Prison gerrymandering is poised to continue in most states for another 10 years, unless states act immediately to fix the problem before the fast-approaching redistricting process. Fortunately, even in the many states that have run out of time to pass new laws before redistricting starts, there are still two solutions left for local and state districts.

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Boston Globe opinion columnist Abdallah Fayyad published a highly-readable oped this month about prison gerrymandering, in which he explains the problem and the urgently-needed solution for local governments: “Remove prisons from redistricting data prior to creating new legislative maps at the local level.”

Meanwhile, state legislators “should ensure that prisons don’t meaningfully distort where [state] district lines are drawn.” This requires map drafters to avoid grouping prisons together into single districts and making sure that districts that do contain prisons have enough actual local residents to meet population requirements.

Fayyad’s oped targets policymakers in Massachusetts, but the solution he explains could work in virtually any state. Most states contain cities and counties whose governments have been wildly distorted by prison gerrymandering, and the Census Bureau is making it easier than ever for redistricting officials to fix the problem themselves. (We’ve previously explained the solution Fayyad offers in more detail.)

Because the oped ran in the widely-read and respected Boston Globe, advocates in other states may find this a very useful piece to distribute as a concise explainer about ending prison gerrymandering this year.

Fayyad also does an excellent job explaining the injustice of prison gerrymandering. As he puts it:

“Representatives from [prison] districts feel compelled to cater to the needs of only a minority of their constituents if they wish to be re-elected…This is not because these representatives are inherently sinister actors — though not responding to the needs of incarcerated constituents is a failure of leadership and the duty to serve a district in its entirety — but because the system encourages elected officials to ignore their prison populations.”

It’s important to end prison gerrymandering, as Fayyad explains, in order to move away from a system in which people in prison are invisible and ignored, and towards one in which they have genuine representation in houses of government.

Read the full Boston Globe oped here:

Read about our ongoing advocacy to end prison gerrymandering in 2021 here:

February 25, 2021

For immediate release — On Tuesday, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed an omnibus criminal justice package that (among several victories) makes Illinois the tenth state to end prison gerrymandering. HB3653 ensures that, beginning in 2030, people in state prisons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new legislative districts are drawn.

The Prison Policy Initiative, which has been leading the national fight to end prison gerrymandering for almost 20 years, notes the significance of this particular victory. “One in three U.S. residents now lives in a place that has ended prison gerrymandering,” said Legal Director Aleks Kajstura.

prison gerrymandering legislation map

But this important win also falls far short of what the Prison Policy Initiative and other advocates hoped for. The part of HB3653 ending prison gerrymandering was singled out in a last-minute change delaying implementation until 2030, rather than ensuring that changes go into effect in the current redistricting cycle. “The state’s delay means another decade of using redistricting data that counts incarcerated people in the wrong place,” said Aleks Kajstura. “While the state waits another six months for the Census’ redistricting data, it could be using that time to count people at home.”

Illinois law states that going to prison does not change someone’s official residence. However, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the places where they are incarcerated. As a result, when Illinois uses Census counts to draw legislative districts, it unintentionally enhances the representation of people living in districts containing prisons. Counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison gives extra representation to the prison district, dilutes the representation of everyone who does not live next to the state’s largest prison, and prevents the state from fulfilling the constitutional requirement of equal representation. Indeed, 22 counties and cities in Illinois that have large correctional facilities already adjust their own redistricting data to ensure equal representation on city councils and county commissions.

While the upcoming redistricting cycle means that the clock is ticking for states that want to end prison gerrymandering, every state still has an opportunity to limit the impact of the distortion. Legislation is not the only way to end prison gerrymandering before new districts are drawn: State and local redistricting officials can also minimize the impact of the Census’ prison counts by using “group quarters” table that will be published with the usual redistricting data. The Census Bureau is publishing the table to make it easier for states to identify correctional facilities in their redistricting data. “More states need to follow Illinois’s example in passing swift reform, but they have to make sure that reforms go into effect immediately or they will face 10 more years of prison-driven democracy distortion,” said Kajstura.

Illinois’s new law applies only to redistricting, and will not affect federal or state funding distributions.

Illinois is poised to become the 10th state to end prison gerrymandering.

by Aleks Kajstura, January 13, 2021

Illinois’ HB 3653, a major criminal justice reform package, contains provisions ending prison gerrymandering for state legislative districts. The final language passed both the Senate and House today.

If signed by Governor Pritzker, it will make Illinois the 10th state to end prison gerrymandering. This reform represents a culmination of a decade-long effort, including CHANGE Illinois and United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations tirelessly pushing for reform.

Unanimous decision follows state legislature’s recommendation to count incarcerated people at home

by Ginger Jackson-Gleich, January 12, 2021

After the 2010 redistricting cycle, the California legislature passed a collection of bills—AB 420 (2011), AB 1986 (2012), AB 2172 (2018), and AB 849 (2019)—that sought to end prison gerrymandering at all levels of government.

At the local level, that legislation requires city and county governments to adjust redistricting data by counting incarcerated people in their home communities, rather than at the correctional facilities where they are detained. At the state level, the legislation recommends that the Citizens Redistricting Commission make that same adjustment.

This morning, the Commission convened to discuss and vote on that recommendation. At the close of the meeting, the Commission adopted the legislature’s recommendation through a unanimous, bipartisan vote of all those present.

The vote followed presentations by our own Aleks Kajstura and by Karin Mac Donald, Director of California’s Statewide Database and the Election Administration Research Center at UC Berkeley, as well as the submission of a letter from Assemblymember Shirley Weber, Ph.D., author of AB 2172 and newly designated Secretary of State for California.

No. We oppose voter-only districting — even our recommendation that incarcerated people be excluded in some contexts lends no support to the practice of voter-only districting.

by Ginger Jackson-Gleich, December 28, 2020

Who should be counted for redistricting purposes? Since the 2010 redistricting cycle, numerous events — from the Supreme Court’s decision in Evenwel v. Abbott to President Trump’s efforts to inquire into citizenship status in the 2020 Census — have drawn attention to this important question. For people interested in our work, an additional query often follows: how exactly should disenfranchised incarcerated people be counted toward district populations?

The fact that questions persist about our recommendations for counting incarcerated people is not surprising: journalists have reported our position inaccurately; advocates for voter-only districting have tried to twist and appropriate our words; and the exclusion of incarcerated people (who generally cannot vote) is one of the solutions to prison gerrymandering that we promote in specific, limited contexts. As a result, some people assume that opponents of prison gerrymandering support voter-only districting.

In advance of the upcoming redistricting cycle, we’d like to make our position on this issue clear: we believe that all persons, whether or not they can vote, are entitled to equal representation and that everyone should be counted for purposes of redistricting. The key concern with prison gerrymandering is not whether incarcerated people should count, but where they should count. Accordingly, districting based on the eligible-voter population is not an approach that we support.

As noted above, we suspect that some of the confusion surrounding this topic arises from our recommendation that incarcerated people be excluded from redistricting data when cities or counties draw local legislative districts around correctional facilities.

To understand why such exclusion does not amount to an endorsement of voter-only districting, it is necessary to see that prison gerrymandering causes two distinct problems: it undermines equality of representation between coequal legislative districts and it siphons political power from incarcerated people’s home communities. Both issues arise from the way the Census tabulates incarcerated populations: it allocates people to their temporary prison addresses, rather than counting them at home (despite the fact that they remain legal residents of their home addresses while incarcerated).

Just like state governments, local jurisdictions — such as cities and counties — have districts that are required to contain equal populations in order to ensure equal representation by local elected officials.

However, as one federal judge has beautifully explained, city councilors, county commissioners, and other local elected officials “can’t make decisions that meaningfully affect” the people incarcerated within their districts, nor can the governing bodies to which those representatives belong do anything for such populations, whose lives are generally governed by state (or even federal) authorities. In other words, unlike other non-voter populations (like children or permanent residents), there is no “representational nexus” between local elected officials and the people detained within their districts. As a result, excluding correctional facilities when local district lines are drawn ensures that districts will have equal numbers of actual residents — and therefore that residents will have truly equal representation.

Unfortunately, local jurisdictions cannot solve the problem of prison gerrymandering in its entirety. While they can avoid creating city or county legislative districts with unequal representation, they cannot — on their own — stop the transfer of political power from people’s home communities. This is because local jurisdictions can refuse to pad their own districts with prisons (by excluding correctional populations prior to drawing district lines), but they cannot restore incarcerated people to addresses outside of their own boundaries. Accordingly, local jurisdictions cannot singlehandedly end the siphoning of political power from incarcerated people’s home communities.

Importantly, the state-level solution is different from the local one; at the state level, exclusion is neither necessary nor beneficial because states can count incarcerated people at their home addresses statewide and thereby solve both parts of the prison gerrymandering problem. Thus, for local jurisdictions, we recommend excluding incarcerated populations prior to redistricting (a partial solution being better than no solution), while our ultimate hope is that states and the Census Bureau will implement the solutions necessary to solve the problem completely.

For all of these reasons, we continue to advocate that using total-population baselines (not eligible-voter populations) is the best method for redistricting, and that incarcerated people should be counted at their home addresses. This total-population approach (sometimes described as the pursuit of “representational equality”) ensures both that elected officials represent the same number of constituents (including those — such as children, non-citizens, and incarcerated people — who cannot vote), and also that officials have a meaningful representational connection to the people they purport to represent. By contrast, efforts to ensure “voter” or “electoral equality” limit representation to only those individuals eligible to cast ballots.

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As part of our collection of updated resources for advocates, we have added a fact sheet that addresses local redistricting (and the prison gerrymandering solutions available to local governments). Readers may also wish to explore our other resources for the 2020 redistricting cycle, including a roundup of legislative solutions, as well as an explanation of why prison gerrymandering does not impact federal or state funding allocations.

Diverse support for ending prison gerrymandering builds momentum for action nationwide.

by Aleks Kajstura, December 18, 2020

Prison gerrymandering can feel like a complex, political quirk. Talking about Census Bureau policy and how the Bureau interprets its own sometimes-arcane “residence rules” can feel like getting deep in the weeds of policy. But prison gerrymandering is not a fringe issue. It has real-world implications for representation and public policies — and there are proven solutions. Since the Prison Policy Initiative and others have been working to solve this problem, we have seen growing public support and reform legislation passed around the country.

The problems stem from the way the Census Bureau conducts its counts. When counting the population every ten years, the Bureau tabulates incarcerated people as if they were residents of the locations where they are confined, even though they remain legal residents of their homes. When the resulting data is then used to draw legislative districts, all of a state’s incarcerated persons are credited to a small number of districts that contain large prisons. This has the effect of enhancing the representation of those districts and diluting representation of everyone else in the state, distorting policy decisions statewide. And since incarcerated populations are disproportionately Black and Latino, minority voting strength is diluted in the process. (Although this affects representation, it fortunately does not have major funding implications, for various reasons.)

Although prison gerrymandering remains a serious issue in most parts of the United States, there is a growing movement to solve it, and significant progress toward reform has been made at the Census Bureau and at all levels of government across the country. States have the power to use correctional data to adjust Census population counts when drawing districts. Since 2010, nine states — Maryland, New York, Delaware, California, Washington, Nevada, New Jersey, Colorado, and Virginia — have passed legislation to do so, ensuring that districts are drawn with data that counts incarcerated people at home. And more than 200 counties and municipalities independently adjust their redistricting data to avoid prison gerrymandering.

All in all, over 30% of US residents now live in a state, county, or municipality that has formally rejected prison gerrymandering:

prison gerrymandering legislation map

Additionally, where states have been unable to implement the most common solutions to prison gerrymandering, they have embraced other options available to them. For example, Massachusetts has not passed legislation, but it found another way to minimize the impact of prison gerrymandering when drawing districts following the 2010 Census, by specifically considering prison populations to ensure that the state would not accidentally (or purposely) concentrate prison populations within a small number of districts. The redistricting committee’s final report on their process devoted significant space to the prison gerrymandering problem and recommended that the Census Bureau create a national solution. The state legislature then doubled down on that recommendation and passed a joint resolution that officially calls on the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at home. Notably, this solution is still available to any state that cannot pass legislation to count incarcerated people at home in time for the 2020 redistricting cycle.

These actions reflect strong public support for solving prison gerrymandering — and a push for the Census Bureau to change the way it counts in the first place. When the Census Bureau asked for public comment on how incarcerated people should be counted in 2015, over 99% of the 77,863 comments urged the Bureau to count incarcerated persons at their home address. And when the Bureau asked again a year later, almost 100,000 people voiced support for the change, including representatives from civil rights organizations, elected officials at all levels of government, former Directors of the Census Bureau, and citizens from across the country. The reform movement has also drawn editorial support from publications like the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In addition to legislative efforts and public comments, organizations and legislative bodies have shown opposition to the Census Bureau’s prison count and prison gerrymandering, by issuing formal resolutions and recommendations.

As a result of state and local governments’ push to avoid prison gerrymandering, as well as support from advocates and the public, the Census Bureau has recognized that the redistricting data it has historically provided does not meet the needs of those aiming to draw equal districts. Although the 2020 Census still counted incarcerated people as if they were residents of correctional facilities, the Bureau will be publishing prison population counts as part of each state’s redistricting data, making it easier for states and local governments to avoid prison gerrymandering.

As a record number of states and municipalities are poised to tackle prison gerrymandering during the upcoming redistricting cycle, now is the time to join the movement for change.

Prisons account for over half of the population in nearly 40 municipalities, painting a distorted picture of communities.

by Aleks Kajstura, November 10, 2020

The Ina Community Center shares a little unassuming building with the Ina Village Hall. The squat single-story structure probably serves the little Illinois village quite well. But judging by their Census population of over 2,300, you wouldn’t think the building adequate.

The village only has 494 actual residents. The 1,800 people who make up the remainder of the Census population are folks who are incarcerated at the Big Muddy Prison. Because the prison is located within the village boundaries, the Census counts them as if they were village residents. That means 80% of the population reported for Ina are legal residents of other villages, towns, and cities, scattered across Illinois.

Ina is just one of nearly 40 municipalities across the US where more than half of the Census population is actually people who were counted at a correctional facility. And in over 100 municipalities, at least one in three people counted by the Census are actually out-of-town residents.

I often talk about how the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as if they were residents of the town that contains the prison causes prison gerrymandering. Prison gerrymandering is the process of using prisons to pad district populations, resulting in increased political representation for people who live near prisons.

But the Census Bureau’s practice skews data in ways that affect more than just redistricting data and representation. When a prison accounts for half of your city population, the Census’ demographic information such as race and ethnicity is not representative of the local residents. Mass incarceration’s disproportionate impact on Black and Latino communities, coupled with prisons being built largely in white communities distorts the Census’ demographic data when people aren’t counted in their home communities. This often paints a distorted picture of job opportunities in the local economy.

Many people assume that prison gerrymandering affects funding allocation, but in fact funding allocation seems to be one of the few data uses left untouched by the Census’ prison miscount. Over the decades, funding formulas have developed a level of complexity that leaves them mostly impervious to the Census Bureau’s odd interpretation of residence.

This year, the Census once again counted all incarcerated people as residents of the facility where they were located on April 1. The population data that will be released over the next few months will therefore suffer from the same deficiencies for another decade; it will once again fail to represent the people who actually live in these communities. For now, places such as Ina can find some relevant information in the Census data, if they know where to look and dig carefully enough. Perhaps by 2030 the Census Bureau will count everyone at home rather than shifting the burden of making its data usable onto everyone else.

Municipalities where at least one third of the Census’ population count is made up of correctional facilities:
Place State 2010 Census Population Percent Incarcerated
Ina village Illinois 2,338 78.87%
Davisboro city Georgia 2,010 77.36%
Chester town Georgia 1,596 77.19%
Varnado village Louisiana 1,461 77.00%
Whiteville town Tennessee 4,638 74.51%
Sumner city Illinois 3,174 74.29%
Dannemora village New York 3,936 71.52%
Helena town Oklahoma 1,403 71.49%
Clifton city Tennessee 2,694 70.49%
Boley town Oklahoma 1,184 70.19%
Ridgeville town South Carolina 1,979 69.98%
Florence town Arizona 25,536 69.10%
Malone town Florida 2,088 68.97%
Alamo town Georgia 2,797 68.32%
Nicholls city Georgia 2,798 67.66%
Tutwiler town Mississippi 3,550 66.48%
Polkton town North Carolina 3,375 64.89%
Jasper city Florida 4,546 64.61%
Abbeville city Georgia 2,908 63.51%
Sheridan village Illinois 2,137 62.70%
Springfield city South Dakota 1,989 62.49%
Brunswick town North Carolina 1,119 61.75%
Grafton village Ohio 6,636 60.96%
Lumpkin city Georgia 2,741 58.23%
Clayton town Alabama 3,008 57.31%
Eden city Texas 2,766 56.25%
West Liberty city Kentucky 3,435 54.73%
Richwood town Louisiana 3,392 54.39%
Westville town Indiana 5,853 54.30%
Calipatria city California 7,705 54.04%
St. Gabriel city Louisiana 6,677 52.91%
Hinton town Oklahoma 3,196 52.72%
Tiptonville town Tennessee 4,464 52.67%
Wrightsville city Arkansas 2,114 52.41%
Gatesville city Texas 15,751 51.84%
Haysi town Virginia 498 51.41%
Licking city Missouri 3,124 51.18%
Carrabelle city Florida 2,778 51.12%
St. Louis city Michigan 7,482 49.22%
Bayboro town North Carolina 1,263 49.01%
Corcoran city California 24,813 48.84%
Eastville town Virginia 305 48.52%
Granite town Oklahoma 2,065 48.23%
Ione city California 7,918 48.17%
Redgranite village Wisconsin 2,149 47.74%
Reidsville city Georgia 4,944 47.53%
Unadilla city Georgia 3,796 46.47%
Susanville city California 17,947 46.25%
Sandstone city Minnesota 2,849 46.16%
Gunnison city Utah 3,285 46.03%
Urania town Louisiana 1,313 46.00%
Mayersville town Mississippi 547 45.89%
Edgefield town South Carolina 4,750 45.81%
Bayport city Minnesota 3,471 45.72%
Clarks village Louisiana 1,017 45.43%
Crescent City city California 7,643 45.35%
Ionia city Michigan 11,394 45.16%
McCormick town South Carolina 2,783 44.70%
Epps village Louisiana 854 44.26%
Eloy city Arizona 16,631 43.85%
Danbury town North Carolina 189 41.80%
Chester city Illinois 8,586 41.59%
Stanley city Wisconsin 3,608 41.57%
Baraga village Michigan 2,053 41.55%
Avenal city California 15,505 41.43%
Pinckneyville city Illinois 5,648 41.13%
Moose Lake city Minnesota 2,751 41.00%
Tehachapi city California 14,414 40.95%
Watonga city Oklahoma 5,111 40.76%
Jackson town Louisiana 3,842 40.66%
Brent city Alabama 4,947 40.57%
Hutchins city Texas 5,338 40.54%
New Lisbon city Wisconsin 2,554 40.13%
La Villa city Texas 1,957 40.01%
Helena city Georgia 2,883 39.75%
Chowchilla city California 18,720 39.08%
Soledad city California 25,738 39.04%
Milan village New Mexico 3,245 38.67%
Anthony town Texas 5,011 38.48%
Cambridge Springs borough Pennsylvania 2,595 38.30%
South Bay city Florida 4,876 38.25%
Mason town Tennessee 1,609 38.22%
Sayre city Oklahoma 4,375 37.71%
Jonesboro city Georgia 4,724 37.60%
Caryville town Florida 411 37.47%
Bonne Terre city Missouri 6,864 37.44%
Calico Rock city Arkansas 1,545 37.15%
Post city Texas 5,376 37.11%
Blythe city California 20,817 37.08%
Hudson town Colorado 2,356 36.97%
Estancia town New Mexico 1,655 36.80%
Bowling Green city Missouri 5,334 36.71%
Vandalia city Missouri 3,899 36.57%
Pine Prairie village Louisiana 1,610 36.40%
Airway Heights city Washington 6,114 35.72%
Tipton city Missouri 3,262 35.35%
Venus town Texas 2,960 35.20%
Pattonsburg city Missouri 348 35.06%
Cadwell town Georgia 528 34.85%
Connell city Washington 4,209 34.33%
Cameron city Missouri 9,933 34.09%
Kingston city Missouri 348 33.91%
Ridgeland town South Carolina 4,036 33.87%
Eddyville city Kentucky 2,554 33.71%

Dramatic examples of prison gerrymandering show the need for new districting practices in the Bayou State.

by Ginger Jackson-Gleich, October 9, 2020

Local governments across Louisiana will engage in redistricting after the 2020 Census. When they do, they will once again face decisions about whether to bestow disproportionate political power upon people who live near correctional facilities. The last time this process unfolded (following the 2010 Census), numerous jurisdictions — including parishes (akin to counties), cities, and towns — formed districts that were highly distorted by prison and jail populations.

For example, Allen Parish gave people living in a district with a federal correctional complex twice as much political power as residents who lived in districts without such a facility. Moreover, because Louisiana has the second-highest incarceration rate in the world and more than a dozen state or federal prisons (as well as dozens of local jails), it is unsurprising that these kinds of power imbalances — the result of “prison gerrymandering” — occur in many places throughout the state.

In addition to popping up in different parts of Louisiana, prison gerrymandering also occurs at numerous levels of government, creating problems at the state level (when district lines are drawn for state legislatures) and in parishes, cities, and towns where prison or jail populations typically constitute even larger portions of local district populations. In addition to undermining notions of representational equality, these population imbalances also create inaccurate pictures of community populations for research and planning purposes (although they do not typically impact federal funding, despite frequent assumptions to the contrary).

As we have explained before, prison gerrymandering happens primarily because the U.S. Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the places in which they are confined, despite the practical reality that (1) most people in prison cannot vote, and many people in jail are effectively barred from doing so (even if eligible), (2) most incarcerated people return to their home communities upon release and remain legal residents of their home addresses even while incarcerated, and (3) local elected officials often have little authority over the lives of people incarcerated within their districts.

While the state legislature in Louisiana engages in prison gerrymandering in drawing state districts, the state’s parishes (and the cities and towns within them) retain the power to utilize Census data to avoid prison gerrymandering when drawing local government districts. Indeed, as the Prison Policy Initiative has previously noted, some local governments in Louisiana have already taken it upon themselves to solve the problem of prison gerrymandering by removing incarcerated people from the districts they have drawn.

Notably, among the parishes with the largest prison populations (proportionally speaking), about half excluded prison populations during redistricting following the 2010 Census. For example, had Claiborne Parish included the prison population contained within its borders, one of the districts in the parish would have been composed entirely of a state prison.

Nonetheless, in many places throughout Louisiana, prison gerrymandering remains a problem. As noted above, Allen Parish is one striking example. The parish’s governing body (its police jury) has seven districts. According to the Census, Allen Parish had a total population of 25,764 in 2010; thus, each of the seven districts in its police jury should have had approximately 3,681 constituents following its 2010 redistricting.

However, Allen Parish relied on non-adjusted Census data to apportion people into those districts, and for one district (District 1) that data included 2,430 people incarcerated at the federal correctional complex within its borders. Using the raw Census data without adjusting it to account for the federal correctional complex meant that 66% of the “constituents” in District 1 ended up being people incarcerated at a federal prison, rather than people who would be meaningfully represented by the district’s elected police juror.

Examples from across the state show that the problem of prison gerrymandering looms large across Louisiana:

  • Allen Parish:
    • Police Jury District 1 (as explained above) includes the people incarcerated at the Oakdale Federal Correctional Complex, such that the incarcerated population accounts for 66% of the district’s “constituents.”
    • Police Jury District 6 includes the people incarcerated at the Allen Correctional Center, such that the incarcerated population accounts for 39% of the district’s “constituents.”
  • Madison Parish:
    • Police Jury District 2 includes the people incarcerated at the Madison Parish Correctional Center, such that the incarcerated population accounts for 37% of the district’s “constituents.”
    • Police Jury District 3 includes the people incarcerated at the Louisiana Transitional Center for Women, such that the incarcerated population accounts for 20% of the district’s “constituents.”
  • Town of Farmerville
    • District C includes the people incarcerated at a local detention center, such that the incarcerated population accounts for 42% of the district’s “constituents.”

Examples like these make clear that prison gerrymandering causes serious distortions to representational equality between constituents. In Allen Parish’s District 1, residents get twice the representation that residents of districts without a correctional facility have. Likewise, in Madison Parish’s District 2 (where the prison constitutes 37% percent of the population), every 63 residents in that district get the same degree of representation as 100 residents living elsewhere. Finally, in Farmerville, the jail in District C constitutes 42% of the district’s population, meaning that 58 residents there have the same political power as 100 residents elsewhere.

While the Census could solve the problem of prison gerrymandering in one fell swoop–by counting incarcerated people at home–it has so far declined to do so. In the absence of such a solution, states, counties, and local governments must act (as some Louisiana state legislators are already attempting to do).

Although it appears unlikely that Louisiana will count incarcerated people at home when drawing state legislative districts after the 2020 Census, cities and parishes can still avoid prison gerrymandering at the local level when they redistrict. Doing so will ensure that Louisiana residents have equal access to their parish, city, and town representatives and a fair say in local government.

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