When, Michelle Alexander,
author of The
New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,
spoke at a gathering in my community, I asked her to give
the audience her condensed version of the prison-based
it as a modern-day 3/5ths Compromise, Alexander explained
that in most states, census residence rules require that
incarcerated people be counted at their place of incarceration
as opposed to their home address.
She went on to explain
that the overwhelming majority of incarcerated people
in the United States hail from the major metropolitan
centers of this country, while the prisons are typically
built in non-urban or rural areas. This counting practice
results in a shift in population from urban center to
rural community, thereby increasing the political clout
of rural communities while decreasing the political clout
of urban communities. And, all the while, the incarcerated,
almost without exception, cannot vote.
In addressing the
census residence rule and specifically prison-based gerrymandering,
the NAACP Legal Defense Fund reports:
are based on population size. The number of people in
a geographical region determines the number of Congressional,
state and local representatives. When prison-based gerrymandering
is employed, the re-drawing of district boundaries to
align with census figures results in large portions of
what would have been urban population being reapportioned
to rural counties.
of this practice, urban communities, particularly urban
communities of color, stand to lose the most. Census figures
help determine where government money will go to fund
hospitals, school services, public housing, social services,
food stamps and other programs. The census figures are
also used to determine how many seats each state has in
the U.S. House of Representatives. Prison-based gerrymandering
may result in the loss of both federal dollars and political
representation for districts that are already struggling.
This is not only a
problem for California but for the rest of the nation as well. According to the
Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit, non-partisan organization
that documents the impact of mass incarceration on individuals,
communities, and the national welfare, the United States is on the verge of a national crisis,
particularly in situations where the communities that
�win� are predominantly white, and the communities that
�lose� are predominantly minority.
The potential negative
fallout of this practice is not limited to communities
of color. This could have far-reaching political consequences,
with Democrats more at risk for getting the short end
of the stick. Consider the national impact if Florida,
for example counts its growing inmate population in the
sparsely populated North Florida counties, where prisons
have cropped up like mushrooms over the past decade.
The Prison Policy
Initiative reports that Florida�s
has two new prisons, accounting for a significant percentage
of its 13,000 residents; a prison built in Gadsden
County could help move state legislative boundaries that affect Tallahassee
and other Big Bend counties. Opinions issued by Florida�s Attorney General in August, 2001, said county commissions
and school boards must include prisoners when redistricting.
82,000 prison inmates may figure heavily in the state�s
redrawing of political boundaries. According to the U.S.
Department of Justice, at year end 2008, California had over 173,000 prison inmates. These
two states give some insight into the breadth of this
problem. Because the census data is updated every ten
years, this issue comes to the fore once a decade. But
its impact lingers.
There are multiple
factors that explain the explosion of the prison industrial
complex but one factor that is rarely addressed is the
political incentive to drive criminal justice policy toward
mass incarceration for purposes of shifting disenfranchised
urban populations to rural communities. As former New
York State legislator, Daniel
Feldman, once said �When legislators cry �Lock �em up!,�
they often mean �Lock �em up in my district!.��
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board Member and Columnist Sharon Kyle, JD, is
the Co-Founder and Publisher of the LA Progressive an online social justice magazine. With her
husband Dick, she publishes several other print and online
newsletters on political and social justice issues. In
addition to her work with the LA Progressive, Ms. Kyle
holds a Juris Doctorate, is an adjunct professor at Peoples
College of Law in Los Angeles, and sits on the board of
the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and the Progressive
Caucus of the California Democratic Party.
to contact the LA Progressive and Ms. Kyle.