Skip to main content
The New Jim Crow

Prison Based Gerrymandering Vote

Recently we ran a piece written by Dick Price entitled, "More Black Men Now in Prison System Than Were Enslaved". Tens of thousands read it. Many left comments. The popularity of his article and the comments posted lead to this follow-up.

The article Dick wrote was a recap of a talk given by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow (see image to the left). Alexander, a civil rights attorney turned scholar, recently made an appearance in Southern California. She delivered an information packed presentation at the Pasadena Library, to a standing-room-only crowd.

Dick wrote a review of her talk. In this article I focus on a specific topic addressed in her book -- what is driving the growth in the prison population and prison-based gerrymandering.

Like the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex has had far-reaching negative consequences many of which remain unaddressed or ignored by the larger society. At the same time, this system is also benefitting certain sectors of the population. This article touches on both of these issues.

Prison-Based Gerrymandering

The practice of gerrymandering is one of the costs to our democracy. This practice renders a small minority of Americans with more voting power than others. But the mass incarceration phenomenon is also costing the U.S. taxpayer more than $60 billion per year for federal, state and local prison systems (source The Sentencing Project).

Speaking of the unprecedented growth of the prison population in a recent ABC News article, Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project had this to say:

"The unrivaled growth of the United States' incarcerated population over 30 years casts a great burden on this nation. The country's $60 billion prison budget results in less money for education, health care and child services. Communities need the resources to prevent crime by investing in youth and families."

Many of the people who read Dick's article questioned whether the natural growth in the U.S. population could explain the growth of the prison population. The Justice Department released a report that makes it clear that the rate of growth in the prison population far exceeds the rate of growth in the U.S. population. You can also read a quick article on this reported by ABC News.

Legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander spent years researching this unprecedented growth. She did not come to this research with preconceived notions. In fact, she makes it clear that before she embarked upon this investigation, she was of the mindset that radical activists were making more of this "prison-industrial complex" than they should. Then she got a fellowship that allowed her the free time needed to delve into the numbers. She slowly but surely drew new conclusions.

The reason her "awakening" is one of the most poignant aspects of this story is because it magnifies the depth and breath of the blindness that she talks about in her book. Michelle Alexander is a black woman. She was a civil rights attorney. She worked for the ACLU and even she was blind to the magnitude of this problem and its racial component until she took a look at the numbers.

It should not be surprising that the vast majority of Americans who have not taken a look at the numbers are clueless about the toll this is taking on all of us.

Matt Pillischer is producing a documentary entitled,"Broken on All Sides", that takes a hard look at what is driving this unprecedented growth in our prisons.

While it seems almost impossible to get any traction on this issue, lack of knowledge continues to be a contributing factor that helps to support the phenomenal prison growth especially as it relates to black and now brown male inmates. Some think that black and browns are growing demographics in the prison population because they commit more crime. This assertion has been debunked. Evidence suggests that the war on drugs has a very specific demographic that is targeted.

ABC News ran a report in response to the Justice Department's announcement that the United States had 2.3 million inmates in custody. Speaking of the Justice Department report, ABC News said:

The report provides a breakdown, noting "of the 2.3 million inmates in custody, 2.1 million were men and 208,300 were women. Black males represented the largest percentage (35.4 percent) of inmates held in custody, followed by white males (32.9 percent) and Hispanic males (17.9 percent)."

The United States leads the industrialized world in incarceration. In fact, the U.S. rate of incarceration (762 per 100,000) is five to eight times that of other highly developed countries, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice think tank.

Some of the key factors for the record imprisonment rate include:

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Race: Black males continue to be incarcerated at an extraordinary rate. Black males make up 35.4 percent of the jail and prison population — even though they make up less than 10 percent of the overall U.S population. Four percent of U.S. black males were in jail or prison last year, compared to 1.7 percent of Hispanic males and .7 percent of white males. In other words, black males were locked up at almost six times the rate of their white counterparts.

Immigration: Is it an emerging crime trend or is this the result of more local police and federal targeting of illegal immigrants? Non-U.S. citizens accounted for nearly 8 percent of the jail population at midyear 2007, the new Justice Department report noted. "From mid-year 2000 through midyear 2007, Hispanic men (120,000) represented the largest increase to the custody population," it said.

In an essay published two years ago in Time magazine, the writers of The Wire made the argument that they believe the war on drugs has devolved into a war on the underclass, that in places like West and East Baltimore, where the drug economy is now the only factory still hiring and where the educational system is so crippled that the vast majority of children are trained only for the corners, a legal campaign to imprison our most vulnerable and damaged citizens is little more than amoral.

The Sentencing Project has reported that more than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their twenties, 1 in every 8 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the "war on drugs," in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color. And now, with prison populations bursting at the seams, there is a movement underway to shift to privatization. I'll be writing more on this in future articles. But please move on to the next page of this article to find out more about the collateral consequences of our current sentencing policies and how it impacts all Americans.

Modern Day 3/5ths Compromise

Last week in her talk, Michelle Alexander addressed most of the salient points covered in her award-winning book with one exception; she didn't talk much about the impact of mass incarceration on the census, particularly with regard to redistricting. Because I knew this topic was covered in the book , I asked Ms. Alexander to give the audience her condensed version of what has come to be known as prison-based gerrymandering during the Q&A.

Audible gasps could be heard from the audience as Alexander explained census residence rules which require that people who are incarcerated be counted at their places of incarceration on Census Day. . .cont'd on page 2 Audible gasps could be heard from the audience as Alexander explained census residence rules which require that people who are incarcerated be counted at their places of incarceration on Census Day as opposed to their home addresses while, at the same time, almost without exception these people do not have the right to vote. Alexander went on to say that most prisons are constructed in rural areas yet most people who are incarcerated come from urban areas. The shift in population from urban to rural increases the political clout of rural communities while decreasing the political clout of urban communities.

In addressing the census residence rule and specifically prison-based gerrymandering, the NAACP Legal Defense fund reports:

This residence rule skews the balance of political power by inflating the population counts of communities where prisons are located by including the non-voting prison populations in these districts during the redistricting process.

Over the last several decades, the percentage of Americans incarcerated in prisons has increased four-fold. Incarcerated persons are often held in areas that are geographically and demographically far removed from their home communities. For instance, although non-metropolitan counties contain only 20% of the national population, they host 60% of new prisons.

In addition, because Latinos and African Americans are incarcerated at three to seven times the rate of Whites, where incarcerated people are counted has tremendous implications for how African-American and Latino populations are reflected in the census, and, consequently, how these communities are impacted through redistricting.

Recently, three states enacted legislation that would adjust for prison populations such that their numbers wouldn't artificially inflate the population numbers of the district where the prison is located. Legislators in Maryland, New York and Delaware had the foresight to prepare for the 2010 census by addressing this in various forms of legislation. But the rest of the nation still operates under a policy that disproportionately disadvantages black and brown communities and gives unearned advantage and power to small, rural, mostly white communities.

The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) documents the impact of mass incarceration on individuals, communities, and the national welfare. They produce research and make it available to empower the public to participate in creating better criminal justice policy. Their main focus is on ending prison-based gerrymandering. According to PPI , the 2010 census counted 2 million people in the wrong place. They give specific examples of how and where this happened, for example, PPI sites the following:

In 2002, the New York State Senate deliberately underpopulated districts in the upstate region while overpopulating districts in the downstate region. This problem ran parallel to the fact that the Census Bureau credited downstate residents to upstate census counts, and together served to dilute minority voting rights. For example, one of those upstate districts was the 59th Senate District, drawn to contain 294,256 people instead of the 306,072 that each district should have contained. Using Census data, the state reported that the district contained 6,273 African Americans, but three quarters of this population was incarcerated residents of other parts of the state. The legislature used the prison population to disguise the fact that the district had the smallest African-American population of any senate district in the state and they deliberately underpopulated that district to give it extra influence.

I urge the readers of this article to explore the suggestions made by the PPI. They can be found here. Another recommendation is to read any of the books shown below. Click any of the books and you can purchase them here. Education on this issue is essential if we intend to dismantle this unjust system. It's also important to support politicians who support dismantling this web of oppression.

Sharon Kyle

The Sentencing Project

The Prison Policy Initiative

Sharon Kyle