Rhode Island takes a (small) step toward ending prison gerrymandering
Decision by redistricting commission means 44% of people incarcerated by the state will be counted in the right district
by Mike Wessler, January 10, 2022
It is almost time to add Rhode Island to the growing list of states that have taken steps to end prison gerrymandering. Last week, the state’s redistricting commission voted to count some of the people incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) in their home districts instead, when drawing state legislative and congressional districts. The bipartisan vote of 15-1 showed overwhelming support for what we hope is a first step toward ending prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island.
Although a small step, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Over the last two decades, advocates on the ground have led the charge to end prison gerrymandering, and this change represents the first concrete step taken by the state to draw districts that accurately and fairly count incarcerated people. That is something worth celebrating.
However, the work to end prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island is far from over. Rather than reallocating all people incarcerated at ACI back to their home communities, the state will only reallocate people who were either not yet sentenced on Census Day or people expected to be released by April 1, 2022. That means only 44% of people incarcerated at ACI will be counted in their home districts. It is an unfortunate and arbitrary choice to count such a small portion of people in their home community. The choice is even more frustrating when you remember state law says a person doesn’t stop being a resident of their home district when they are incarcerated. That is true whether someone is incarcerated for a day or a lifetime.
It’s imperfect progress, so what’s next?
The first step is finalizing the new maps in the state. In the coming weeks, the commission will produce its proposals. Then, this spring, the legislature will give the maps final consideration. After that, legislators should look to build upon and solidify the progress that has been made by passing legislation that ensures that all incarcerated people in the state are counted in their home communities for the purposes of drawing district lines in the coming decades.
Ultimately, though, the piecemeal actions taken by the Rhode Island Redistricting Commission are further evidence that the best way to end prison gerrymandering is for the Census Bureau to change the way it counts incarcerated people to end prison gerrymandering nationwide. Now that yet another state has joined the emerging consensus on this issue, there is even more reason for the Bureau to count incarcerated people at home in the first place.