Op-Ed: Prison Gerrymandering Is Unfair, Undemocratic and Wrong – And We Can Fix It!


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Photo credit: ubaltciclfellows.wordpress.com
Photo credit: ubaltciclfellows.wordpress.com

Werner Oyanadel
Special to CTLatinoNews.com
It is more than anything a question of fairness.  When the state divides its 169 communities into 151 districts to elect members to the House of Representatives and 36 districts for State Senate seats, it is done based on population.  Each House district has roughly the same number of people, and each Senate district is roughly equivalent as well.
However, in our state a practice exists that undermines the fairness of this process.   That’s because a handful of towns in Connecticut, where major correctional institutions are located count those who are incarcerated as residents of their communities, which inflates the local population with people who are not constituents.   In fact, these “residents”, who are eligible to vote must actually vote by absentee ballot in their home community – not the town claiming them as part of its population.
The consequence of this prison gerrymandering creates false information for the U.S. Census Bureau which then uses this data to determine House and Senate district lines.   The prison population artificially increases the political power of the towns that count the prison inmates as residents at the expense of cities and towns where these incarcerated people had previously lived, which tend to be urban communities – contrary to the principle of equal representation.
This prison gerrymandering practice is not only unfair and undemocratic, but a departure from the U.S. Supreme Court’s one person, one vote mandate.
It has been pointed out by the executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, Peter Wagner, that “in Connecticut, the population incarcerated in state prisons is almost large enough to be a state house district by itself.  Although this population comes from all over the state, disproportionately from the state’s urban cities, as it is reported now to the Census Bureau, almost two-thirds of the state’s prison population is credited to just five towns (Cheshire, East Lyme, Enfield, Somers and Suffield).”
The basic unfairness of this system, and its potential to skew elections and representation, is obvious.  In fact, Cheshire and Enfield have long recognized the inequity and impact, and therefore do not count prison populations in determining local districts for their municipal elections.  We should demand nothing less at the state level.
Beyond that, this practice of prison gerrymandering conflicts with Connecticut law, which explicitly states that “No person shall be deemed to have lost his residence in any town by reason of his absence therefrom in any institution maintained by the state.”  Yet, the current legislative district lines do just that.
There are inconsistencies at every turn.  In Connecticut, some individuals in prison retain the right to vote – for example, if they are awaiting trial or are serving time for misdemeanors. For voting purposes, they are not permitted to claim residence in the prison, but must vote absentee in their home communities. The contradiction could not be more glaring.
Wagner notes that “there is also a clear racial justice issue at stake: African-Americans are nine times as likely to be incarcerated as White people in Connecticut, and Latinos five times as likely. But the Census Bureau counts the incarcerated population as residents of those mostly-white towns, and this creates a serious inequity.”
The system is broken, and ought to be fixed now.  The repair begins with the passage of legislation such as Raised SB No. 459 which is currently under consideration in Connecticut – as four other states (New York, California, Maryland and Delaware) have already done – to count prisoners in their home communities, rather than the cells in which they temporarily reside.
Werner Oyanadel is Executive Director of LPRAC – LPRAC is a nonpartisan policy agency within the legislative branch of government created in 1994 by an act of the Connecticut Legislature (i.e., P.A. 94-152, amended by P.A. 03-229 and amended by P.A. 09-07). Under Public Act 09-07, LPRAC consists of 21 appointed community leaders that are mandated to advise the Connecticut General Assembly and the Governor on policies that foster progress in the Latino communities residing in Connecticut.