Rowan Kane photo
Peter Wagner executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative (Rowan Kane photo)

A broad coalition of advocates wants to end the practice of prison gerrymandering.

Currently, prisoners are counted as constituents of the district in which their prison is located, rather than the city or town where they lived before they were incarcerated. Advocates say this “undermines the constitutional principle of ‘one person, one vote’.”

While Connecticut prisons are located almost exclusively in rural towns with predominantly white residents, the prison population consists disproportionately of Blacks and Latinos from urban areas. There were about 10,283 Blacks and Latinos and 5,092 white inmates last month in Connecticut prisons.

Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said prison gerrymandering gives extra representation to those communities that house prisons.

Ingrid Alvarez-DiMarzo, state director of the Hispanic Federation, said the practice “unfairly distorts communities of color’s representation in state and local politics.”

Alvarez-DiMarzo’s organization is just one of the groups that supports legislation that would require Connecticut’s prisons to register the last known address of each of their residents with the Secretary of the State. The political boundaries would then be redrawn in 2021 using that information.

Data provided by Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission shows that in Somers and Suffield a significant portion of the towns’ overall populations — 20 and 13 percent respectively — reside in prison. Both towns have prison populations of over 2,000.

According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, the 59th House District in Enfield — the town with the state’s largest prison population — registered more than 3,300 African-American and Latinos as constituents. However, because district includes three prisons, 72 percent of those African-Americans and 60 percent of those Latinos are not actually residents of the town.

Rep. David Kiner, who represents the 59th District, said that the current way the districts are drawn is not gerrymandering and that while it’s a complex issue, he is opposed to any changes in the law.

His main opposition to the proposal is the prospect that his community could lose state funding.

Kiner said that Enfield is continuously underfunded and is “owed thousands” because of the state’s failure to follow through on payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, that would otherwise be paid to the town.

Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said the money has been a stumbling block in the past because, in addition to representation, population data is part of a formula that determines the amount of funding provided to communities.

The proposed legislation, however, says that the reformed population data would not be used to changed how state or federal aid is distributed.

Four states — New York, Maryland, Delaware, and California — already have eliminated the practice.

In 2012, Maryland’s law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Connecticut lawmakers have raised the issue before, but the legislation died in committee.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who said he was a co-sponsor of an earlier bill to end prison gerrymandering, said that this year’s effort was different because of the broader coalition that has come together on the issue. He hoped that the conversation over gerrymandering would move beyond the Capitol and into the public sphere.

Chandra Bozelko was a resident of Orange when she was incarcerated at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic. While Connecticut felons cannot vote until after they have served their sentence and parole, inmates who are serving time for a misdemeanor, those who remain unsentenced or on bail, are still eligible to vote.

While she remained on Orange’s voting rolls, Bozelko said it was extremely difficult to acquire the absentee ballot necessary to vote while she was incarcerated. She said she and her fellow voting-eligible inmates were left without a voice.

There are just under 16,000 prisoners incarcerated in Connecticut. Wagner estimated that about half of those are still eligible to vote.

The coalition backing the legislation includes the Hispanic Federation, Prison Policy Initiative, ACLU, League of Women Voters, and the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.

The legislation has yet to be posted online.