Gerrymandered State Districts Exploit Disenfranchised Prisoners

Last week’s cover story from the Valley Advocate, the Northampton region’s free alternative weekly newspaper, reports that prison inmates are counted as residents for purposes of drawing state and federal legislative districts, even though these inmates lack the right to vote. The result, as Maureen Turner writers in her article The Prison Town Advantage, is that communities with prisons have disproportionate political power while the prisoners’ hometowns (often minority and urban areas) lose power:

…The Prison Policy Initiative, an Easthampton-based nonprofit, has released numerous reports in recent years examining the problem in states around the country; this month, PPI is releasing a report, “Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Massachusetts,” that looks at the effects here. The report, co-authored by PPI Executive Director Peter Wagner and colleagues Elena Lavarreda and Rose Heyer, finds that five of the state’s legislative districts would not even exist in their current configurations if their population counts did not include prison inmates.

This apparently unintended data-gathering quirk, Wagner said, has profoundly detrimental consequences for the distribution of political power—consequences that extend further than one might expect.

Counting disenfranchised prisoners to draw up legislative districts “makes no sense,” Wagner said, “and is actually offensive to our notion of democracy.”

It also bears, in the words of Boston-based voting rights attorney Brenda Wright, an “uncomfortable resemblance” to the “three-fifths” compromise between Southern and Northern states written into the U.S. Constitution in 1787. That provision declared that a slave would count as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning congressional districts.

“The slave states benefited in terms of political power, based on a population that couldn’t vote,” said Wright, who directs the Democracy Program for Demos, a public policy and advocacy organization. More than 220 years later, legislators with prisons in their districts are likewise benefiting from a population that’s also denied the vote—while other districts lose.


Peter Wagner began studying prison-based gerrymandering while a law student at Western New England College. His first project looked at neighboring New York State, where the effects are especially dramatic. There, Wagner noted in a 2002 report, 91 percent of prison cells are located in the upstate region, whose economy depends heavily on the prison industry. But only 24 percent of prisoners actually come from upstate New York; the majority—66 percent—comes from New York City.

As a result, Wagner said in a recent interview, “the whole center of gravity shifts.” For state legislators who have prisons in their districts, the facilities are a boon: the prison population swells local numbers enough to justify the creation of a legislative seat, while the prison creates jobs and spurs related economic activity in a part of the state that sorely needs both. According to PPI, seven legislative districts in upstate New York would not have the minimum population required for a district were it not for their prisoners.

But not everyone wins under this scenario. While upstate legislators may have prisoners in their districts, because those prisoners cannot vote, there’s no incentive for the legislators to support policies that could positively affect the urban districts where the majority of prisoners come from. Meanwhile, because the prisoners are not counted in their hometowns, those communities’ populations, for the purposes of creating legislative districts, drop.

“Prisoners and their families have negative political clout,” Wagner said.

And it’s not just prisoners (and the family and neighbors that remain in their hometowns) who feel the effects of this imbalance, Wagner noted. Residents who live in districts without prisons have, in essence, less political influence than those in districts that do have prisons.

“These … districts get an enhanced say, which hurts every other district in general, and hurts the district where prisoners come from even more,” Wagner said.

Meanwhile, prisoners—despite the fact that they contribute to a prison-district legislator’s political power—have no political influence over “their” representative. “The way things should work is, if a legislator doesn’t represent some of his or her constituents, there’s a check in place—the overlooked residents can vote that person out,” Wagner said. “But when some of those constituents can’t vote, that natural check and balance doesn’t work.”

Read the whole article here.

Visit the Prison Policy Initiative website to learn more. Another interesting report recently produced by PPI argues that “a Massachusetts law that requires a mandatory sentence of at least two years for certain drug offenses committed within 1,000 feet of schools does not work to protect children from drugs and has the negative effect of increasing racial disparities in incarceration.”