Census 2020: What Is Prison Gerrymandering?

While you’re probably familiar with recent questions surrounding whether or not to include a controversial citizenship question in the 2020 Census, the fight to end a practice called “prison-based gerrymandering” has been building momentum over decades. Now, as Presidential candidates are engaging with questions around issues like prisoner disenfranchisement on the national stage, you may start to hear the term “prison gerrymandering” in relation to the Census. But what is prison-based gerrymandering? Here’s a quick rundown.

What is Prison-Based Gerrymandering?

Simply put, prison-based gerrymandering is the practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the district in which they’re imprisoned, rather than as residents of their regular home communities. On the surface, this may seem like a reasonable way for the Census Bureau to collect population data. Dig a little deeper, and you begin to see the detrimental effects on our democracy that a practice like prison-based gerrymandering facilitates.

What’s the Harm of Prison-Based Gerrymandering?

Census data is used to draw state and congressional legislative districts, so the number of people in your district matters. American prisons are disproportionately located in less populated rural counties that tend to skew whiter and more conservative. The folks inside those prison walls, however, tend to come from more populated and diverse metro areas. By counting incarcerated people as non-voting residents of the district in which they’re imprisoned, you can inflate the political power of one rural district at the expense of other districts, both rural and urban, that don’t have prisons to artificially boost their numbers. 

Where Does My State Stand on Prison-Based Gerrymandering?

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Nevada became the sixth state to pass legislation to end prison-based gerrymandering this past May, while six other states have pending legislation to end the practice. Moreover, It’s encouraging to read accounts of bipartisan efforts at the local and state level to change the status quo. 

Local communities across the country have worked around prison-based gerrymandering after the Census counts of 2000 and 2010 — some even going so far as to abolish their districts in order to avoid it. Some examples of less extreme, creative ways to get around prison-based gerrymandering at the local level include “ignoring the prison population, cutting a hole in their maps around the prison, overpopulating the district with the prison by the exact amount of the prison population, or splitting the prison population between all districts equally.” 

Want to see how your state stacks up? Take a look at the map below. 

Map: Peter Wagner, 2019 (Prison Policy Initiative website)

What Can I Do About It?

Here are some ideas: 

  • Follow organizations and individuals who are the experts on prison-based gerrymandering and felony disenfranchisement via social media. Subscribe to their online newsletters, and take a look at their available resources. See who they are following! The Prison Policy Initiative and The Sentencing Project are great places to start. 
  • Listen to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folks when they talk about their experiences. Check out this short personal essay by Common Cause Fellow Sheri Davis, who wasn’t able to vote in the 2016 elections and is now an advocate for ending prison-based gerrymandering. 
  • Research and gather as much information as you can about how prisoners are counted in your district, and familiarize yourself with your state and local elected officials.
  • Take your research a step further and learn more about the Census Bureau itself, and what it can and can’t do as an agency. Keshia Morris, Census & Mass Incarceration Project Manager at Common Cause, says, “The Census Bureau can also fix the issue themselves by changing their “usual residence rule” — it is too late to change for 2020, but we can begin to advocate for 2030.” 
  • Write an op-ed! Once you have a good understanding of your local landscape, you can write an op-ed to bring prison gerrymandering to the forefront of your local community through a small newspaper or other relevant publication popular on your campus. 

If you were at the AGF’s 2019 National Civic Leadership Training Summit, you might already feel empowered to support Census work happening in advance of the count next Spring. You may also feel ready to flex your writing skills in an op-ed! The Census is an important tool in our democracy, and April 2020 is just around the corner. Are you excited to get to work? 

About the Author

Paige is the Programs and Office Assistant at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She graduated from Emerson College with a B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing. While in Boston, Paige became involved with her college’s Office of Service Learning and Community Action, completing the AmeriCorps Student Leaders in Service program as a senior. During this time, she volunteered on urban farms alongside high school-aged leaders and mailed packages with a local books-to-prison program, among other opportunities. Paige continues to be passionate about sharing resources and correspondence with incarcerated individuals, as well as volunteering with community-focused farms. Prior to joining AGF, she worked at The Garden Club of America, where she provided administrative support for member garden clubs across the country, in addition to several volunteer-led national committees.