WINDSOR — While counting prisoners as residents of the town where they are incarcerated instead of where they live can cause problems with governmental representation, it is a problem that can be fixed, a prison reform advocate said Tuesday.
Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative — a nationwide nonprofit research and advocacy organization studying how the prison systems affects society as a whole — was speaking to Drinking Liberally, a non-partisan, progressive social group. Drinking Liberally, a subsection of another group called Living Liberally, meets at the Union Street Tavern in Windsor on the first Tuesday of every month.
Although Connecticut law states that prisoners are counted as residents of the cities where they lived before incarceration, the United States Census counts prisoners as residents of the town where they are imprisoned, Wagner said. This means small towns have disproportionately higher representation than they should, and the representation of all other towns is diluted.
Legislative districts are drawn based on population, but counting prisoners as residents of the districts where they are incarcerated distorts those populations, Wagner said. Drawing up voting districts based on population is the best way to comply with the United States Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” rule and assure everyone is represented equally, Wagner said.
In some districts with prisons, 1 of 10 people are incarcerated, so because of prison gerrymandering every nine people in the district are counted like they’re 10 people, Wagner said.
Counting prisoners toward a district’s population is similar to the “three-fifths clause” that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person during early censuses, Wagner said. Slaves were already considered property, not people, so the move wasn’t to count them less so much as it was to bolster the political power of southern states and property owners.
The five largest cities in Connecticut — Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, Stamford, and Waterbury — make up about 18 percent of the state’s population are and home to about half the people in prison. However, two-thirds of those prisoners are incarcerated in five small, predominantly white towns: Cheshire, East Lyme, Enfield, Somers, and Suffield. So, when the census counts prisoners as part of towns, they transfer that population from the cities to small towns.
Prison gerrymandering causes problems with racial representation, Wagner said. According to a 2013 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, State House District 59 — which includes sections of Enfield and East Windsor — claimed more than 3,300 African American and Latino constituents. However, 72 percent of the African Americans and 60 percent of the Latinos were not residents of the district, but were instead incarcerated in the Enfield, Willard, and Robinson Correctional Institutions.
The racial disparity among prisoners is a big deal, Wagner said. African-Americans are incarcerated nine times as often as white people. According to the report, 86 percent of the state’s prison cells are located in House districts with high white populations.
According to the report, after the 2011 redistricting based on the 2010 census, nine Connecticut state house districts only met minimum population requirements because they included prisoners.
When prisoners are counted toward a voting district’s population, in effect it shrinks the size of the district so that people who live relatively near the prison might not have representation in that district, Wagner said.
And while no single district will lose enough of its population to a prison to significantly shrink it, the population of prisoners taken from all over the state is enough to enhance that single district and dilute the others by default, he added.
Also, since not everyone in a Connecticut prison is barred from voting — such as those who are awaiting trial or who were convicted of misdemeanors — they are required to vote with absentee ballots in their home districts, not in the district where they are incarcerated, Wagner said.
The easiest way to fix this issue, Wagner said, is the Census Bureau could change where incarcerated residents are counted. Redistricting bodies could then adjust districts based on the census data.
Every area has to use the same population data when drawing up voting districts, Wagner said. They don’t self-report their population.
Legislation can also be passed to fix it, Wagner said, and has been in California, Delaware, Maryland, and New York. While there is a growing movement in Connecticut to eliminate prison gerrymandering, Wagner said, bills have been introduced in the state legislature four years in a row and have gone nowhere.
Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause Connecticut, a political action group dedicated to open and honest government, said a lot of the pushback seems to come from a fear of redistricting, particularly among incumbents.
State Sen. John A. Kissel, a Republican in the 7th Senate District that includes East Granby, Enfield, Granby, Somers, Suffield, Windsor, and Windsor Locks, was cited during the talk as someone who has spoken against bills targeting prison gerrymandering after they were defeated. About 7 to 8 percent of his district’s population is incarcerated, Wagner said.
Quickmire added that Kissel’s not the only one who opposes the bill.
There also is a conflict between urban and suburban or rural districts over who would have more clout and get more attention after redistricting, she said.
Changing the size of voting districts can affect things like criminal justice politics, Wagner said, and could affect their ethnic makeup, too.
Funding is one thing that isn’t affected by prison gerrymandering, Wagner said. Funding is usually done it terms of block grants to the state based on things like poverty statistics and school statistics.
“Funding is a big red herring that gets everyone upset,” Wagner said.
Quickmire said this is a really important issue for people to address, especially since redistricting can be complicated to understand.
Wagner noted that the towns of Enfield and Cheshire do not use the prison populations when drawing up their local voting districts. Also, numerous cities and counties across the country draw their districts like those two towns, with Michigan and Colorado requiring that towns not count prisoners when drawing local boundaries.
Liz Dupont-Diehl, one of the organizers for Drinking Liberally, noted the success other states like New York and Maryland have had fixing this issue, and said there seems to be interest in enacting similar legislation in Connecticut.