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State Legislature addresses ‘prison gerrymandering’

As the 2020 Census nears completion, states across the country are bracing for electoral redistricting, where seats in the national and state legislatures are redistributed based on population.

However, in Connecticut, this process has been changed by Senate Bill 753, passed by the state Legislature last month and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont on May 26.

The law affects the way incarcerated people are counted when it comes to the Census. Under the previous system, incarcerated people were counted as residents of the town where they were imprisoned, effectively boosting the population of these towns when the Census is conducted. Since representation in the General Assembly is based on population, this gave towns that have prisons a higher population count than they might otherwise have and, potentially, larger amounts of state funding.

Opponents of this practice have referred to it as “prison gerrymandering” and claim that it unfairly advantages rural areas. These small towns generally have more prisons than urban areas despite the fact that most of the incarcerated people are from cities. Prisons such as the ones in Montville and East Lyme can generate vital economic activity for these towns, but having issues within prisons can often bleed over into the surrounding community and tax local resources.

“Our first responders are quite often pulled in for ambulance/EMT services, police and fire,” said East Lyme First-Selectman Mark Nickerson when asked about the effect of prisons on the local community.

The bill changed the previous system by reclassifying incarcerated people as members of the town or city where they last resided prior to incarceration. The bill affects all incarcerated people in Connecticut except those currently serving a life sentence with no possibility of release.

Supporters of the bill say that it is also an important step toward remedying the racial aspect of incarceration. Prisons in Connecticut have a disproportionately high population of people of color compared to the population at large. According to Census data, nearly 70% of incarcerated people in Connecticut are people of color despite the state’s population being over 75% White.

Supporters of the bill point to this, combined with the fact that incarcerated people in Connecticut cannot vote, to demonstrate the toll that the current system takes on communities of color.

“Human beings are not chattel. Counting bodies — most of which are black and brown when it comes to prison populations — without allowing them to vote in and participate in a town amounts effectively to treating them as property. I would feel this same way even if incarceration rates were more racially proportionate, but as it is, the racial implications of prison gerrymandering cannot be ignored,” stated

State Rep. Christine Palm, one of the cosponsors of the bill.

“A town like Somers, where Northern Correctional is located, which is largely a white population, has had thousands of additional black and brown residents counted there, but they are unable to vote or participate in the town in any meaningful way,” Palm continued.

Calls to reform the way incarcerated people are counted have been heard in state legislatures all across the country. Maryland became the first state in the nation to abolish prison gerrymandering in 2010, followed by nine other states over the course of the decade.

After the bill was signed by the governor, Connecticut became the 11th state to pass a law of this type. The bill in Connecticut had been advocated for by a variety of organizations such as the AFL-CIO, CT Voices for Children, and Common Cause. Due to the 2020 Census counting being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the bill goes into effect immediately.

Opposition to the bill has been limited. Although all 40 of the bill’s co-sponsors were Democrats, the bill passed the General Assembly in a bipartisan vote with little to no negative testimony being given against the bill. Local officials, too, did not seem perturbed by the bill’s contents. Even town officials from areas that contain prisons like East Lyme were neutral.

“The women’s prison in Niantic is down to 550 prisoners. The loss will be insignificant to our population numbers and representation from state leaders,” explained Nickerson, the East Lyme first selectman.

The bill is unlikely to seriously affect the distribution of seats in the legislature due to Connecticut’s low prison population, which currently stands at fewer than 9,000 people and has been declining in recent years.

Some local officials have even welcomed the bill’s passage since it would clarify the status of incarcerated people in Connecticut. This would, in turn, simplify the process of the state and federal government granting money to municipalities, a process which is currently based on population.

“I have long been a proponent of making clear as to when the prison population counts into the town population.” said Montville Mayor Ronald McDaniel. “As many grant programs and organization costs are population based, there should be a single standard.”

Jackson Meisner of Essex is a student at the Williams School in New London who will be attending American University in the fall. He is part of the Times’ summer Young Journalists Initiative. For information, email times@theday.com.

 

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