Prison Gerrymandering Distorts Democracy

“There are many ways to hijack political power. One of them is to draw state or city legislative districts around large prisons—and pretend that the inmates are legitimate constituents.”—Brent Staples

According to Prisoners of the Census: “The clearest example of prison gerrymandering comes from the City of Anamosa, Iowa where a large prison was almost an entire city council district. Council districts are supposed to contain the same number of people, but basing districts on non-voting non-resident prison populations gives a handful of residents the same political power as thousands of residents elsewhere in the city.”

Counting inmates as residents of prisons and detention centers violates Pennsylvania law, which states: “A penal institution (including a halfway house) cannot be a residence address for registering to vote.”

It also violates the one person, one vote requirement of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment as was made clear this year by U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker in Calvin et al. v. Jefferson County and by U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux in Davidson vs. City of Cranston.

Census Bureau Advisory Committees have repeatedly requested that inmates be properly tabulated as residents of their home communities. Legislative bodies, advocacy organizations and research institutions have documented the distortion to democracy when primarily urban prisoners are used to swell the population base and political clout of politicians who have strong incentive to support prison expansion and politics to ensure continues mass incarceration.

Fair Districts PA is committed to calling attention to this distortion of democracy here in Pennsylvania but we need your help to make that happen. If you live in an area you believe is impacted by prison-based gerrymandering, help us document this. We’re collecting stories plus looking for help sorting through data. Take a look at the Prisoners of the Census Democracy Toolkit to see how to get started.

For information specific to Pennsylvania check here.

The Census Bureau is accepting formal comment on this until August 1. For talking points check here.

You can also ask your local government to pass a resolution asking for change.

If you take action, let us know! We are all in this together.