In representative democratic systems, each voting district is apportioned power according to its population. This assumes, of course, that all citizens can vote. The platitude of “one person one vote,” however, fails miserably when we consider the impact of carceral facilities on Connecticut’s head count.
Connecticut currently counts incarcerated persons as belonging to their prison’s address, rather than the homes and communities they inhabited prior to incarceration. This process, a relic of our discriminatory past, is commonly known as prison gerrymandering. Like typical district manipulation, prison gerrymandering artificially increases the voting power of some districts and siphons representation away from others.
This policy is undemocratic and exploitive. While the census counts incarcerated people as residents of the legislative districts in which they are imprisoned, Connecticut law prohibits incarcerated individuals from voting. This means that incarcerated persons have no say in the communities and elected officials whose representation is bolstered by these large, non-voting prison populations.
Prison gerrymandering undermines the foundation of our democracy. Senate Bill 753 is Connecticut’s last chance for a decade to make things right. Legislative districts are only redrawn once after the census is taken every 10 years, so the clock to abolish this practice is ticking.
Fortunately, Senate Bill 753: An Act Concerning the Counting of Incarcerated Individuals for Purposes of Determining Legislative Districts, has already been voted out of committee and could put a permanent end to prison gerrymandering in Connecticut. The bill’s provisions offer a simple solution. Should S.B. 753 pass, each incarcerated person in the state would be assigned a unique identifier inclusive of their home address prior to incarceration. Each correctional facility in the state would then issue a report containing this information to the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management. From there, the office would ensure that legislative redistricting counts incarcerated people as residents of their home communities, not prisons. New Haven has especially high stakes in the passage of this bill. Representational imbalances created by prison gerrymandering disproportionately affect District 97, broadly inclusive of the city’s southeastern neighborhoods.
A 2018 NAACP investigation found that the vote of a resident in northern Connecticut’s District 59 holds 15 percent more weight than a vote in District 97, draining legislative influence from one of the state’s most underserved communities. Even considering the recent closure of Northern Correctional Institute, the northern districts of Connecticut still contain a disproportionate number of correctional facilities when compared with the rest of the state.
If passed, Senate Bill 753 would restore proper representation to District 97 and other prison gerrymandered districts across Connecticut.
The legislative inflation afforded by prison gerrymandering is undemocratic in its own right, but the disparate racial demographics between prison populations and their constituent districts make this issue even worse.
In a collaborative effort to support S.B. 753, Dwight Hall’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy, or SSDP, compiled data from the U.S. Census and Connecticut Department of Correction which shows that, on average, prison districts in Connecticut are 77.3 percent white, only 8.9 percent Black and less than 8 percent Latinx. In contrast, the populations of the prisons are 29.6 percent white, 43 percent Black and 26.4 percent Latinx.
Furthermore, a 2013 report by the Prison Policy Initiative found that “almost half of the state’s prison population comes from the state’s five largest cities, but almost two-thirds of the state’s prison cells are located in just five small towns.”
This staggering disparity highlights the concerning fact that this prison gerrymandering shifts power away from urban communities with majority-POC populations and towards predominantly rural, white districts which seldom reflect the same political interests as their incarcerated populations.
Connecticut is already behind the curve in legislating against prison gerrymandering: 10 other states have already passed legislation combating prison gerrymandering and its mechanisms of racial and voter suppression. New York and Maryland, early leaders in this issue area, dismantled their state’s prison gerrymandering systems just after the last census in 2010. Maryland’s No Representation without Population Act, H.B. 496.3 and New York’s “Part XX” both created provisions to geocode the former residential location of eligible individuals and reallocate the population data back to their home districts using strategies similar to those outlined in Connecticut’s S.B. 753.
Prison gerrymandering stems from two of the most critical political issues of this era: systemic racism and suppressed voter representation. By passing Senate Bill 753, the Connecticut General Assembly has the power to usher Connecticut into a more equitable and democratic future. The time to act is now.
Click here to contact your representative about their support for Senate Bill 753.