Prison Gerrymandering

The Rhode Island redistricting commission will roll out its final maps tonight. One issue to keep an eye on: prison gerrymandering.

The census counts prisoners as if they live at the correctional facility. And because Rhode Island is a small state with a single state prison complex - in Cranston - the potential for distortions is particularly great.

Consider this: the ideal House district size in Rhode Island, after the 2010 census, is 14,034 people. The census counted 3,433 inmates at the complex, known as the Adult Correctional Institute. If all those inmates are squeezed into one House district, almost one-quarter of the constituency for that district would be non-voting prisoners.

The impact: the non-prison residents of the district would have disproportionate power; their votes would, in effect, count more than those of voters in the state's other districts.

At present, the ACI's population is split between two districts - those of Peter Palumbo and Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello. The split mitigates the issue somewhat. And current redistricting plans appear to keep with that approach, though we'll see what emerges tonight.

But Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative in Massachusetts and the leading national advocate on the issue, says Rhode Island - even with the split prison population - already claims among the most prison-gerrymandered districts in the country.

The Rhode Island ACLU has called on the General Assembly to approve pending legislation that would count prison inmates in their home communities. Maryland, Delaware, and New York have already passed similar laws. Such a measure would not take effect until the 2020 round of redistricting, though. In the meantime, the ACLU has called on the Assembly to manually adjust census data, as over 100 rural counties across the country do, to remove prison populations altogether.

That seems unlikely to happen in Rhode Island this time around, though. And if it doesn't, Cranston will remain overrepresented.



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