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How ‘prison gerrymandering’ shifts political power from urban Pennsylvanians of color to white, rural ones

“The incarcerated are not only missing from their communities, they are also benefitting other communities.”

Atiba Kwesi became a voting rights activist after being in prison for 27 years. While incarcerated, he said, it was clear that he was not being represented by the lawmakers of the district where the prisons were located.
Atiba Kwesi became a voting rights activist after being in prison for 27 years. While incarcerated, he said, it was clear that he was not being represented by the lawmakers of the district where the prisons were located.Read moreANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer

By counting prisoners as living in their prisons and not at their home addresses, Pennsylvania’s system for drawing political maps benefits white, rural voters at the expense of voters in urban areas, disproportionately affecting people of color, experts say.

Eyeing the 2020 Census and subsequent round of map-making, advocates say they are pushing for the state to change that system, and they have an ally in Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf “believes that prisoners should be counted based on their home or last known address,” his spokesperson said Wednesday.

While the practice of “prison gerrymandering” affects districts and voters across the state, a study by two Villanova University criminologists published in April found profound impact on Philadelphia. If prisoners were counted based on their home addresses, the city would gain one, possibly even two, majority-minority state House districts.

“The incarcerated are not only missing from their communities, they are also benefitting other communities,” wrote the authors, sociology and criminology professors Brianna Remster and Rory Kramer.

“Living in a community that is underrepresented means that your whole entire community suffers,” Remster said in an interview. “Your community is penalized in multiple ways if you live in a district that has a lot of people incarcerated.”

How prisoners are counted

The Census Bureau’s decennial counts consider each person’s “usual residence,” which it defines as “where a person lives and sleeps most of the time.” Someone hospitalized temporarily would be counted at the home address, but a person in a long-term psychiatric institution would be counted at the facility.

College students are counted at school because they spend most of their time there, not at home.

“Therefore, 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,” the bureau wrote last year about how the 2020 Census will be conducted.

How that changes political maps

Census Bureau data are used in many ways, including in allocating hundreds of billions of federal dollars and drawing political maps. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the 2020 Census will be followed by new congressional and state legislative maps in 2021.

According to the principle of “one person, one vote,” political districts are supposed to be drawn to have roughly equal populations. That helps ensure lawmakers represent equal numbers of constituents, giving people equal voice.

Each congressional district in Pennsylvania has about the same number of people, as do Senate and House districts.

When prisoners are counted in a prison, they are counted in determining the population of the district where it is located.

How that shifts political power

Equal population doesn’t mean equal number of voters, and in fact prisoners serving time for felony convictions cannot vote in Pennsylvania; they are silent blocs of nonvoters.

Districts with prisons have fewer eligible voters than those without prisons. And that, in turn, means votes have different weights.

All this is significant given the criminal-justice system in an era of mass incarceration, Remster and Kramer said. Prisons in Pennsylvania (and elsewhere) are generally located in more rural, whiter areas; and prisoners often are people of color from urban areas.

“It’s not just advantaging the white, rural voters,” Remster said. “It’s penalizing communities of voters in urban, nonwhite areas.”

And prisoners say they are not really the constituents of the lawmakers who represent the prison district.

“Politicians don’t come to the prisons to talk to you about what’s going on in the prisons,” said Atiba Kwesi, 59, who spent 27 years in different prisons in Pennsylvania and New Jersey on armed-robbery and drug-related convictions.

Nor was he a member of the broader community of the political district while he was incarcerated, said Kwesi, whose legal name is Jesse Johnson Jr. Now living in West Philadelphia, Kwesi has been a voting-rights activist since being released in 2010 — just in time to be counted at home in that year’s census.

How to change the system

State Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Phila.) said she often works on behalf of Philadelphians who are incarcerated in prisons elsewhere.

“We literally are still doing constituent services for them, but still they are not counted as in our districts,” burdening urban representatives, McClinton said.

McClinton has introduced legislation to have prisoners counted at their home addresses for redistricting purposes. There hasn’t been outright resistance to the idea, she said, but getting attention has been difficult because the issue simply isn’t on her colleagues’ radar. She said she hopes it won’t be a partisan conflict, pointing to two Republican cosponsors who represent more rural districts.

“People from Philadelphia, they’re immediately supportive,” she said. “But I have rural colleagues who are supportive, because they want to represent actual voters. Who doesn’t want to represent actual voters?”

Mimi McKenzie, legal director at the Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center, said the group has been studying the issue and advocating for changes to redistricting practices. They believe counting prisoners as living in prisons could violate the law.

For now, she said, their lawyers are focused on advocacy.

“We’re working hard and advocating for the state to simply follow what we think is Pennsylvania law and count individual inmates at their home addresses, not in their cells,” she said.

And if that doesn’t work?

“We have already thought through a lot of potential legal strategies,” McKenzie said. “Just because it’s important we not be caught off guard, since we’ll have to move quickly.”

As a practical matter, it’s possible for states to count prisoners at their home addresses, and some, including New York, Maryland, and Delaware, will do so in 2021 for both legislative and congressional redistricting.

Recognizing this, the Census Bureau said it will offer data on prisoner populations that states can request, if the states provide some records to help identify prisoners’ home addresses.

“The state should be able to pull that off,” said study co-author Kramer. “There are a bunch of different ways. … How to do it is a legitimate question, but it’s not actually a hard question to answer.”