Preparations to update state political maps have renewed a long-standing controversy over where prisoners should be counted — where they lived before they were arrested or where their prison is located.

The issue has been around for years, but the controversy has intensified as the number of people behind bars has increased and evidence has mounted that what critics call “prison gerrymandering” unfairly amplifies the political influence of areas that house prisons while diminishing the influence of communities of color.

In current practice, prisoners are counted as residents of the counties and legislative districts where the prisoners are located.

Earlier this month, a coalition of 35 groups — including the Abolitionists Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause of Pennsylvania, the League of Women Voters and Fair Districts PA, among others — sent a letter urging the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission to abandon prison gerrymandering practices in the redistricting process.

Eleven states have moved away from prison gerrymandering in redistricting, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. New York and Maryland didn’t use prison gerrymandering in their 2011 redistricting processes. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington are moving to avoid prison gerrymandering in this year’s redistricting process. Illinois has pledged to abandon prison gerrymandering in 2030.

Gov. Tom Wolf supports the idea of ending prison gerrymandering, his spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said.

Prison-based gerrymandering is a practice whereby many states and local governments count incarcerated persons as residents of the areas where they are housed when election district lines are drawn, rather than in their home communities.

The number of people incarcerated in state prisons topped 50,000 — there were 51,512 in the state prison system in 2014. 

In 2000, there were only 36,000 people in state prison, according to DOC data.

At that Legislative Reapportionment Commission hearing, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, said that the Census is intended to reflect where people are living at the time of the Census.

And in cases where prisoners are serving lengthy prison terms, the prisoner may be in the correctional facility the entire period between one Census and the next one, she said.

“What do we do about lifers?” she asked.

Erica Clayton Wright, a spokeswoman for Ward, said that while critics call the current practices ”prison gerrymandering,” “the correct terminology for determining where to count inmates is “prisoner reallocation.”

She added that the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which draws political maps for state lawmakers, will address how to count prison inmates “in the near future.”

State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County, the minority leader in the Senate -- and a member of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, said that he supports the idea of counting inmates in their home communities rather than where they are incarcerated. He said that the issue will be discussed again at the LRC’s Aug. 24 meeting and the commission could vote on the issue, then. Costa and state Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, the House minority leader, are in favor of counting inmates in their home communities. He said he expects that Ward and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, will oppose changing the way inmates are counted, which would mean that the tie would be broken by chairman Mark Nordenberg.

Congressional maps are set in a piece of legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor.

“As for now, there is no reason to believe, the General Assembly, which is responsible for congressional redistricting, will abandon its long standing practice of counting prisoners in the districts where they are incarcerated,” Clayton Wright said. “A few reasons include, prisoners are in fact located in the districts where they are incarcerated as they utilize resources such as utilities, facilities, and the services of their local elected official representing the prison where they are incarcerated,” she added.

Costa said that Democrats will be working to get legislation passed to get inmates counted in their home communities for the redistricting of the Congressional maps, as well.

Villanova professors Brianna Remster and Rory Kramer analyzed the potential implications of eliminating prison gerrymandering in a study released in 2019. They found that ending the practice would have obvious impact.

In their analysis, they found:

  • If prisoners were returned to their home districts, 34 districts gained or lost more than 837 residents.
  • The average Black resident would gain 353 new voters in their district, while Whites would lose 59.
  • Latinx residents would gain 313 new voters in their district.

Jenna Henry, deputy director of Better PA, said that while there is clear evidence prison gerrymandering diminishes the political power of minority groups, it’s also clear that many rural communities are getting shortchanged as well.

Any county or legislative district that is not home to a prison loses out because of the practice, she said.

“I was looking through some of the new census data numbers, I mean, we're seeing a huge loss. Rural Pennsylvania is hemorrhaging people,” she said. Areas without prisons in their communities are unfairly having residents counted elsewhere, Henry said.

Eighteen counties have state prisons in them — Centre, Clearfield, Crawford, Cumberland, Delaware, Elk, Erie, Fayette, Forest, Greene, Huntingdon, Luzerne, Lycoming, Mercer, Montgomery, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Somerset and Wayne.

Six counties have federal prisons in them — Cambria, McKean, Philadelphia, Schuylkill, Union and Wayne.

While in most cases, the prisons make only modest changes in the counties’ population, in a handful of cases, due to the number of prisons and rural nature of the counties, the difference can be substantial.

In Forest County, where the county population is 6,973, according to the most recent data, the 2,271 prison inmates account for 1 out of 3 people living in the county.

In Greene County, 5 percent of the county’s 35,954 residents are behind bars. In Huntingdon County, 7 percent of the county’s 44,092 residents are in prison and in Union County, 8 percent of the county’s 42,681 residents are inmates.

In their letter calling for the end of prison gerrymandering, the advocacy groups argued that the practice creates a situation where lawmakers have constituents behind bars who they likely feel no obligation to advocate on behalf of. “We know that incarcerated people do not see their cell as home,” said Salewa Ogunmefun, executive director of Pennsylvania Voice. “They see it as a cell. It is a prison. It is a cage. And if we want to give respect to every single person who lives in this state, we must make sure that we are respecting them through their representation.,” she said.

State prisoners by county of sentencing

County Population Residents In state prison
Adams 103,852 333
Allegheny 1,250,578 3,153
Armstrong 65,558 108
Beaver 168,215 339
Bedford 47,577 209
Berks 428,849 1,505
Blair 122,822 525
Bradford 59,967 275
Bucks 646,538 1,235
Butler 193,763 273
Cambria 133,472 344
Cameron 4,547 19
Carbon 64,749 173
Centre 158,172 247
Chester 534,413 1,048
Clarion 37,241 141
Clearfield 80,562 407
Clinton 37,450 109
Columbia 64,727 172
Crawford 83,938 397
Cumberland 259,469 418
Dauphin 286,401 1,791
Delaware 576,830 2,183
Elk 30,990 114
Erie 270,876 1,124
Fayette 128,804 712
Forest 6,973 22
Franklin 155,932 634
Fulton 14,556 87
Greene 35,954 95
Huntingdon 44,092 195
Indiana 83,246 138
Jefferson 44,492 421
Juniata 23,509 63
Lackawanna 215,896 942
Lancaster 552,984 1,813
Lawrence 86,070 216
Lebanon 143,257 648
Lehigh 374,557 1,292
Luzerne 325,594 937
Lycoming 114,188 601
McKean 40,432 175
Mercer 110,652 372
Mifflin 46,143 141
Monroe 168,327 580
Montgomery 856,553 1,604
Montour 18,136 47
Northampton 312,951 787
Northumberland 91,647 245
Perry 45,842 159
Philadelphia 1,603,797 11,353
Pike 58,535 133
Potter 16,396 78
Schuylkiil 143,049 537
Snyder 39,736 146
Somerset 74,129 195
Sullivan 5,840 12
Susquehanna 38,434 63
Tioga 41,045 80
Union 42,681 145
Venango 50,454 354
Warren 38,587 230
Washington 209,349 481
Wayne 51,155 134
Westmoreland 354,663 648
Wyoming 26,069 122
York 456,438 1,462
PA 13,002,700 45,875
(Sources: Census and Department of Corrections)

Percent of county population housed in state or federal prisons

County Population State prisoners in county Federal prisoners in county Total prisoners in county Percentage of population behind bars
Cambria 133,472 0 816 816 1%
Centre 158,172 3,290 0 3,290 2%
Clearfield 80,562 2,317 0 2,317 3%
Crawford 83,938 882 0 882 1%
Cumberland 259,469 2,312 0 2,312 1%
Erie 270,876 2,124 0 2,124 1%
Fayette 128,804 1,898 0 1,898 1%
Forest 6,973 2,271 0 2,271 33%
Greene 35,954 1,665 0 1,665 5%
Huntingdon 44,092 2,982 0 2,982 7%
Lycoming 114,188 988 0 988 1%
McKean 40,432 0 972 972 2%
Mercer 110,652 1,020 0 1,020 1%
Northumberland 91,647 1,754 0 1,754 2%
Schuylkiil 143,049 3,119 1,095 4,214 3%
Somerset 74,129 2,767 0 2,767 4%
Union 42,681 0 3,533 3,533 8%
Wayne 51,155 737 1,262 1,999 4%
(Sources: Department of Corrections, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, and Census)

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