What Is Prison Gerrymandering and How Does It Impact US Politics?

Teen Vogue, 10/31/22: “Every 10 years, the Census Bureau attempts to count every resident in the United States. This process incites prison gerrymandering, which means counting incarcerated people as residents of their prison cells rather than as residents of their home communities.

Because this population data is used to draw electoral maps, the practice severely limits political representation of those communities at all levels of government, says Jessica Jackson, chief advocacy and operations officer at REFORM, an organization that aims to reduce the number of people in the criminal justice system, specifically focusing on probation and parole. Even if an incarcerated person has a sentence that is longer than 10 years, many people don’t stay in the same prison for a decade.

Prisons are not homes. Despite living in a prison cell in a particular town, many incarcerated people continue to maintain strong connections to their family members, friends, and people who are part of the larger community in their hometowns. After all, those towns are the places where incarcerated people built their lives before prison.

‘The nation has taken part in a 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration,’ Mike Wessler, the communications director for the Prison Policy Initiative, tells Teen Vogue. During the first 200 years of the census’s existence, the United States didn’t have the massive prison population that it has today, he points out. This means the census wasn’t creating distorted effects to this degree when legislative and local political lines were drawn. Says Wessler, ‘We only started to really realize this was a problem in the ’90s, as the prison population boomed.’

Why does prison gerrymandering happen?

Prison gerrymandering occurs because of the antiquated way that the Census Bureau defines ‘usual residence.’ According to the census, this term refers to the place where people ‘live and sleep most of the time,’ labeling prisons as homes for incarcerated people. Although this policy has been in place for more than 100 years, the recent explosion in America’s incarcerated population has created a problematic, self-perpetuating cycle of harm, Jackson says.

America’s prison system removes individuals from their networks and social safety nets. It places them in facilities that can be dangerous and may be located dozens or even hundreds of miles from their communities, research shows. It also limits their education and job training options and fails to adequately support mental health and medical needs.

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