Counting prisoners along political lines

Prisoners are counted many times a day by their keepers, so collecting information for the 2020 census should be easy for the state Department of Correction.

A thornier issue is whether the state's approximately 13,000 inmates should be counted as residents of their host prison town or the community where they resided prior to incarceration.

Southeastern Connecticut hosts two prison facilities. The Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic housed an average of 946 female inmates during the month of February, according to the DOC's research unit. The Corrigan and Radgowski correctional facilities in Montville held an average of 758 and 432 inmates, respectively, during February.

State lawmakers and a federal judge are considering the political and financial implications of prisoners' residences of record in proposed legislation and a federal lawsuit. Legislative districts are reapportioned every 10 years based on census population figures, and some grant funding is distributed based on population. There are 151 state House districts in Connecticut, each of which has about 23,000 residents.

Counting inmates as residents of the prison host town for purposes of creating political districts is considered "unlawful prison gerrymandering" by the NAACP. The organization claims the urban hometowns of people of color who are disproportionately incarcerated are undermined when the prisoners are counted as residents of the more rural prison host towns, where populations tend to be predominantly white.

House Bill 5611 proposes counting incarcerated persons as residents of their last town of residence.

Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill submitted testimony in favor of HB 5611, even though she is named, in her official capacity, as the defendant in the federal lawsuit.

"Counting incarcerated persons in the community in which they lived prior to incarceration will give more accurate population counts in both Connecticut's major cities, and in the towns that host our correctional facilities, and will result in legislative districts that more accurately represent the communities from which they are drawn," Merrill's written testimony said.

Some lawmakers and town officials say that the prison towns, whose payments in lieu of taxes for hosting nontaxable state facilities have been greatly diminished, and who still provide first responders and other services, should get to count the prisoners as residents for purposes of receiving population-driven forms of state aid, including disbursements to each town of casino payments via the Mohegan-Pequot Fund.

"The population is one of the things that drives funding for the town from the state and the federal government, and that's one of the things that's going to affect them," said State Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville. "As far as redistricting, I don’t think it's significant."

Coincidentally, Ryan is one of three state representatives for the town of Montville, which was carved out that way due to census-based redistricting in 2000. It's an advantage for the town, he said.

The federal "prison gerrymandering" lawsuit brought against the state by the NAACP is moving forward based on a ruling last month by Senior U.S. District Judge Warren Eginton. In denying the state's motion to dismiss the case, he noted that under state law, residents of state institutions do not lose their home residence status by virtue of their absence.

Many prisoners have lost their right to vote by virtue of their convictions but those who can vote are required to do so by absentee ballot.

Using the most recent numbers available, Connecticut's population is 80.3 percent white, 16.9 percent Hispanic and 11.9 black, while the prison population is 30.5 percent white, 26 percent Hispanic and 42.6 percent black.

Attorney Aleks Kajstura of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative said the Census Bureau in 2020 would continue to count incarcerated people in the location of the correctional facility but would be more responsive to states' redistricting needs by presenting its "group quarters data," or its count of people who live in institutions, earlier.

Most states count prisoners as residents of the communities in which they are incarcerated but, starting with the 2010 census, New York and Maryland count prisoners as residents of their home community, Kajstura said. California and Delaware are following suit during the upcoming cycle and seven states, including Connecticut, have pending bills that address the issue.

Montville's prisons are in the state's 42nd District, represented by Republican Mike France, who is the ranking member of the Government Administration and Elections Committee. The committee recently held a public hearing on the prison gerrymandering bill and eventually will debate on the bill and decide whether to move it forward.

"As it's currently worded, I don't think it's appropriate," France said. "What if they live out of state? What if they're homeless? What if they had no home of record when they came into prison? What if they are in prison for 30 years?"

France said lawmakers ought to wait to hear what happens in the federal court case.

Montville Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel said he would like to see consistency in the way prisoners are counted when it comes to grant reimbursements. The town pays a per capita fee for all its residents, including prisoners, when it comes to paying for membership into a health district, but the prisoners are not counted for other reimbursements. Payments in lieu of taxes from the state for services that towns provide to nontaxable state facilities are shrinking.

"It's not consistent across the board, which is really the problem," McDaniel said. "I shouldn't be able to cherry-pick, and neither should the state."

State funding for schools, known as Education Cost Sharing Grants, are calculated based on school enrollment figures rather than the population of the community in which they are located.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said the logistics of counting prisoners as members of their hometown may be more complicated than it appears on the surface. She spoke of the "domino effect" on neighboring districts if the prisoners at the York prison, which is in her district, were not counted as residents.

"If they were taken out, you would have to redraw the district in such a way that you would have to make up for that shortfall," she said.

She had questions about towns that host other institutionalized populations.

"My understanding is that if the Census (Bureau) is going to return prisoners to their home towns, shouldn't they be doing the same for college students? if you're doing it, you have to be consistent," Cheeseman said.

k.florin@theday.com

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