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.