Sentenced to prison as a teenager, Abd’allah Lateef lost his right to vote for the 31 years he spent in a state prison in rural Greene County, more than 300 miles from home. But he was counted in the U.S. census as a resident of that county — and remains so today, almost three years after returning home to North Philadelphia.
“As a formerly incarcerated person, coming into that knowledge and the understanding of that, to me in many ways was reminiscent of the thought of what it was like to be an enslaved person,” said Lateef, who registered to vote a week after being released from a life sentence for participating in a robbery in which an older accomplice shoved the victim, who died 18 days later of heart failure. “You couldn’t vote. Yet, your body was counted to create power within small rural counties that otherwise would not receive the representation.”
That’s why Lateef and two other former prisoners-turned-activists — exoneree Terrance Lewis and former juvenile lifer Robert Saleem Holbrook — are suing to stop the practice known as prison gerrymandering.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the law firm Ballard Spahr filed the suit Thursday in Commonwealth Court on behalf of the three men, the NAACP, and student groups from the University of Pennsylvania who argue that, as Philadelphia residents, their vote is being diluted. The respondents include the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Gov. Tom Wolf.
Wolf’s spokesperson told The Inquirer last year that the governor agrees “prisoners should be counted based on their home or last known address.” Wolf’s spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit.
If they prevail, it would be more than just a moral victory: According to an analysis published by two Villanova University criminologists last year, Philadelphia would gain one or two state House seats simply by counting incarcerated people by their home counties.
“If prisoners are counted as living in their residence of origin, there is a substantial likelihood that an additional majority-minority district in Philadelphia would be necessary,” professors Brianna Remster and Rory Kramer wrote in their report.
As it stands, they said, “the incarcerated are not only missing from their communities, they are also advantaging other communities.”
Specifically, NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Cara McClellan said, it “has the effect of inflating the political power of predominantly white rural distracts where most of Pennsylvania prisons are located, while diluting the vote and representational power of largely black and Latino communities in urban districts from which most of the state’s prison population originates.”
The NAACP filed a similar lawsuit in federal court in 2018 taking on prison gerrymandering in Connecticut. That lawsuit is still pending.
More than 12,000 prisoners — or about 25% of the state prison population — are from Philadelphia. A 2018 Inquirer analysis found that at least 80% of Philadelphians in state prisons were housed more than 100 miles from home.
State Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Philadelphia Democrat, has introduced legislation to count prisoners as if they were in their home districts — a practice that has already been adopted by neighboring states New York, Maryland, and Delaware. While the bill has bipartisan sponsorship, it has not advanced out of committee since it was introduced in March 2019.
As of 2018, the Census Bureau’s official position favored what continues to be the status quo in most of the country: “Counting prisoners anywhere other than the facility would be less consistent with the concept of usual residence, since the majority of people in prisons live and sleep most of the time at the prison.”
But those who were counted that way said they were ignored by the lawmakers who nominally represented them.
While working in the law clinic at the State Correctional Institution Greene, near the southwestern corner of the state, Lateef repeatedly tried to contact his state representative to express the need for criminal-justice reform. He never received a response. “Our representatives had more power to thwart any meaningful reforms that were coming from the districts we actually lived in,” he said.
Holbrook, who was 16 when he was involved in a drug deal in which someone was shot and killed, served 27 years of a life sentence before he was released to Delaware County. Years later, he is still considered a Greene County resident for purposes of apportionment. He said he’s not just fighting for his own rights.
“By counting us in those rural districts, it increases everything from the resources those districts get to the voting power those districts get in the state legislature,” Holbrook said. “For us, it’s being disenfranchised on a personal level. But collectively Philadelphia is being disenfranchised.”