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Prisons bring political power to many prison towns. That’s because the people locked up are counted in the census numbers used to redraw voting districts, even though most can’t vote. There’s a growing movement, though, to change where incarcerated people are counted. NPR’s census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang explains.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Incarcerated people are some of the least powerful people in the country. But once a decade, their numbers can shift political power in big ways, depending on exactly where they’re counted.
The 2010 census – where were you April 1, 2010?
TERRANCE LEWIS: I was at SCI Pittsburgh for the latter end of my incarceration.
WANG: That was a state prison in Pennsylvania where Terrance Lewis was locked up after he was wrongfully convicted and where he was counted, because since the first U.S. census in 1790, the federal government has considered prisoners residents of where they’re incarcerated.
Did you feel like a resident of the Pittsburgh area?
LEWIS: I did not. I always had my mind, I always had my heart attached from where my community was, where my support system was, where all my hope and warmth and comfort was.
WANG: And that was more than 300 miles away from his prison cell – in Philadelphia, where Lewis lived before he was put behind bars. Since his exoneration, Lewis has joined other formerly incarcerated people in calling for their states to change the census numbers before they’re used to determine the area’s elected officials represent by re-allocating the counts of prisoners to where they last lived before they were imprisoned. It’s an effort to end what some call prison gerrymandering.
ROBERT HOLBROOK: When we look at prison gerrymandering, it’s all part of suppressing African American political power.
WANG: Robert Holbrook of the Abolitionist Law Center was one of the other formerly incarcerated Black men who joined Lewis and the NAACP in a lawsuit filed last year in Pennsylvania. For decades, prisoner counts have boosted the census numbers of prison towns that are often rural and predominantly white. And that has factored into how some federal funding is distributed based in part on census numbers. But Holbrook and Lewis’s lawsuit focus on the political implications.
HOLBROOK: Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities. Therefore, when you have prisoners from these communities incarcerated in prisons in rural, white districts, it is depriving political representation to these communities.
ABD’ALLAH LATEEF: It is a numbers game.
WANG: Abd’allah Lateef was another challenger in the lawsuit, which was ultimately dismissed this year on procedural grounds.
LATEEF: And the numbers are tweaked in such a way that it creates undeserved power and representation.
WANG: Some prison towns have used census numbers that count prisoners where they’re locked up to create local voting districts filled with incarcerated people who cannot vote. Still, allocating prisoner counts for redistricting has drawn pushback from Republicans. In Virginia, a state senator joined a legal challenge arguing that not counting prisoners where they’re incarcerated would ultimately reduce the voting power of districts that typically have, quote, “greater Republican voting strength.” That case was dismissed today on procedural grounds. And last month, during a meeting of Pennsylvania’s redistricting commission…
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KERRY BENNINGHOFF: Adopting this proposal would severely impact the ability to draw state legislative districts in a timely manner.
WANG: The majority leader for the Pennsylvania state House, Kerry Benninghoff, noted the difficulty in getting the needed data ready.
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BENNINGHOFF: In a year when the census data has already been late, the commission still has a bulk of heavy lifting ahead of us.
WANG: This week, however, Pennsylvania’s redistricting commission ultimately decided that for the redrawing of state legislative districts, people held in state prisons and serving minimum sentences that end before the next census day in 2030 are to be counted at their last known addresses if they were living in the state immediately before they were incarcerated. For this redistricting cycle, 10 other states have their own versions of policies, with some that apply to congressional and local voting districts. And all of these states share at least one major challenge.
ALEKS KAJSTURA: They’re using data that wasn’t meant for these purposes.
WANG: Aleks Kajstura is the legal director of the Prison Policy Initiative, the leading advocacy group for counting prisoners at their last known addresses, which is not as easy as it may sound. Prison records can be missing or incomplete, and the Census Bureau has applied new privacy protections to redistricting data that may make it harder to match that data with prison records.
KAJSTURA: There’s definitely a lot of work these states need to do, which is why it’d be better if the Census Bureau would fix it at the national level.
WANG: The bureau has said it counts prisoners where they’re incarcerated on census day because, quote, “the majority of people in prisons live and sleep most of the time at the prison.” But Kajstura and other advocates say they’re ready to push for a different bureau policy for the next census in 2030.
Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
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