During the decennial census, the Census Bureau, state, and local governments have traditionally counted incarcerated individuals as residents of the areas where they are imprisoned, rather than in their home communities. This data is then used for redistricting—resulting in distorted local and state representation and hidden transfers of political power to communities that host prisons. By inflating the apparent size and therefore the political influence of areas with incarceration facilities, prison gerrymandering violates our constitutional right to equal political power based on population size. This problem is especially urgent and harmful in today’s era of mass incarceration and limits the voices and power of communities of color.
Despite advocacy to the change the practice, the 2020 Census will once again count prisoners where they are incarcerated. While the Census Bureau is best positioned to end prison gerrymandering permanently and on a national scale, state action is needed to address this problem in the meantime— particularly ahead of the next redistricting cycle.
As of January 2020, seven states had enacted legislation to prohibit prison gerrymandering and count incarcerated individuals at their last known home address in the state: California (2011), Delaware (2010), Maryland (2010), Nevada (2019), New Jersey (2020), New York (2010), and Washington (2019). Colorado, Michigan, Tennessee, and Virginia have addressed prison gerrymandering at the local level, either by barring or discouraging county and local governments from counting prison populations when drawing local districts (e.g., for town or school board elections).
State legislators have a crucial role in advancing accurate and equitable redistricting that strengthens the voices of marginalized black, white, and brown communities. To help end the harmful practice of prison gerrymandering, the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) and Prison Policy Initiative have put together the following brief with messaging guidance, policy design considerations, practical lessons on bill drafting, coalition building, and implementation, and example legislation.