Prison Gerrymandering Impacts Our Elections

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Often used as a statistical and political ploy, prison gerrymandering is the process in which imprisoned people are counted as residents of the district where they are jailed, instead of the districts to which they otherwise reside. While eight states currently prohibit prison gerrymandering, the widespread and corrupt practice still skews the Census and elections across the nation.

The Census, which helps determine political representation, defines “usual residence” as the place an individual “eats and sleeps most of the time.” This varies significantly from the legal definition: the place a person chooses to be for an extensive period of time. The altered definition by the Census allows many districts to proceed with prison gerrymandering. Despite this, most state constitutions clearly “state that incarceration does not change a residence.” Take Franklin County, New York, for example, which chose not to count the 11% of its total incarcerated population during redistricting, and only recorded their legitimate residents.

Each new decade following the Census, congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn. Naturally, the districts that have higher populations receive greater political power. With the power granted by the Census, districts with prisons count incarcerated citizens as part of their population, which artificially boosts their population. For example, in one Connecticut district, prison gerrymandering led to a 15% increase of its recorded number of residents.

The majority of the districts who have been granted the increased political power are mainly white, rural and conservative. On the contrary, the inmates are statistically more diverse and from urban regions.

In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported “that 35% of state prisoners are white, 38% are black, and 21% are Hispanic.” Furthermore, rural prisons incarcerate inmates at over double the rate of urban ones, with most of the prisoners coming from “urban communities of color.” This could be because some state prisons “pay counties [that have prisons] with extra bed space to” take-in inmates coming from poorer urban areas, leading counties with more money to spend on their prisons to greatly increase their inmate, and ultimately total, population.

Prison gerrymandering can also falsely inflate the recorded ethnic diversity of these rural communities.

While the topic of prison gerrymandering is extremely controversial, the underlying roots of the practice are primarily based off of racist ideologies and negative stigmas. Prison gerrymandering weakens the voting power and representation of certain communities, while the mainly white districts where the majority of prisons are located serve to prosper off of the policy.

According to a study published in April of 2019 conducted by Rory Kramer, an associate professor at Villanova University, prison gerrymandering adds nearly 59 residents to the average white community and takes away between 353 and 313 people away from African American and Hispanic communities.

Incarcerated individuals do not get the opportunity to reap the benefits that they provide by spiking local populations. Aside from Vermont and Maine, no state allows convicts to vote in any type of election, let alone speak with their representatives.

One district in Montana is able to boost its population by 15% through prison gerrymandering, which greatly increases the political power it has in elections. A rural district located in Texas is able to increase its population by 12% with incarcerated individuals. This means “every group of 88 residents in that district are represented in the State House as if they were 100 residents from urban Houston or Dallas.” Examples such as these can be found all throughout the country.

Prison gerrymandering has a drastic impact on local and state elections. In fact, groups such as the NAACP use precedents set in Baker v. Carr (a case which granted federal courts the right to hear redistricting cases) and Reynolds v. Sims (a case that determined that the Equal Protection Clause demanded “no less than substantially equal state legislative representation for all citizens”) to claim that prison gerrymandering contradicts the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment, which has borne the legal principle of “One Person, One Vote,” is supposed to trump any state or local law, and hence should prohibit prison gerrymandering. Both of the cases dealt with equal representation in regards to redistricting, and prison gerrymandering directly contradicts the majority of the rulings in these two cases.

There are numerous organizations, along with the NAACP, that promote awareness about prison gerrymandering and encourage action, including the Prison Policy Initiative’s Prison Gerrymandering Project.

Currently, the Supreme Court has not ruled on the practice’s constitutionality. However, it did choose to uphold Maryland’s law banning prison gerrymandering, setting precedent.

Through Teen Lenses: What do you think of prison gerrymandering?

“Both the criminal justice system and the concept of districting are deeply flawed and were never made to work for people of color. I think there are many states taking steps in the right direction by enacting legislation that prohibits prison gerrymandering, but there is definitely more to address with regards to racial disparities.”Dimagi Kottage, rising sophomore at UC Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California
“This [policy] can be seen as (at best) an unfortunate side effect of the huge prison system we have anyway. And at worst, it can be seen as a (possibly) deliberate attempt to get a certain desired political outcome, and it is one that negatively impacts black populations the most, since they make up the majority of prisoners. I believe should definitely be counted as members of the district they are actually residents in, because that’s where they live and should be represented. Their lives are in those areas, and policies will be relevant and affect them in that area (once they get out of prison). Counting them as the district they are jailed in just doesn’t make sense.” Xiwei Peng, Rising Sophomore at The University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland