Organizations encourage cities, counties to exclude prison populations in redistricting numbers

Published 12:47 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2022

The Ordinary People Society (TOPS) has once again teamed up with Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Southern Poverty Law Center and the Prison Policy Initiative to advocate for local cities and county commissions across Alabama to end prison gerrymandering in the 2021 redistricting cycle.

The goal of the project, led by TOPS, is to change where Alabama’s incarcerated population is counted. Traditionally, the U.S. Census Bureau counts inmates as residents of the correctional facility where they are held instead of their home address. The issue with this method is that it inflates population totals for redistricting where the correctional facilities are and gives additional political power to those who live near the prisons across the state. This practice creates prison gerrymandering. This is the second set of letters sent to the municipalities and counties, with the first set of letters sent in June 2021.

The Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, founder of The Ordinary People Society, said it is important for inmates to be counted in the Census where they come from, not where they are housed.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Glasgow said the organizations ultimately want to influence the government to count inmates in the proper place. Improperly counting inmates in the county or city they are housed takes resources away from their home cities and counties.

Glasgow has been influential in fighting for inmate voting rights in Alabama.

In 2008, Glasgow sued the Alabama Department of Corrections after the state attempted to prohibit him from visiting prisoners for the purpose of registering them to vote. Initially, Glasgow was permitted to visit prisons, but the state then revoked that permission. Eventually, Glasgow was allowed to continue his work of registering those votes.

In 2017, the state legislature passed a bill defining what crimes of moral turpitude are and restored voting rights to thousands of felons and ex-convicts in the state.

“They don’t have full citizenship when they lose their voting rights,” Glasgow said. “Why is it they can vote from where they came from but they cannot be counted where they came from?”

Inmates who have not lost their right to vote are able to cast votes in the voting jurisdictions in which their home address is located.

“Rural communities feel some of the most significant distortive impacts of prison gerrymandering, with residents who live further from a prison having their voices diminished in local government,” Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Institution, said. “As local governments take on the task of drawing new districts, they should know they have the opportunity to end prison gerrymandering, as more than 200 communities did after the 2010 Census. Whether they ended prison gerrymandering in the past or are just learning about the problem, we stand ready to help communities take steps to ensure all residents have an equal say in their government.”

The group has identified 10 communities to target across Alabama that fall into one of three categories:

• Jurisdictions that did not include inmates whose home addresses were from outside areas but were housed in facilities locally during the previous redistricting cycle;

• Jurisdictions that failed to exclude inmates whose home addresses were from outside areas but were housed in facilities locally during the previous redistricting cycle; or

• Jurisdictions in which it was not clear how prison gerrymandering was handled during the last redistricting cycle.

Those communities identified are Talladega, Bay Minette, Barbour County, Bibb County, Elmore County, Clayton, Brent, Columbiana, Wetumpka and Atmore.

“(We) sent letters to several jurisdictions around Alabama to encourage officials to avoid prison-based gerrymandering because it harms people inside and outside of correctional facilities. It’s also important to bring awareness to the public about this practice that distorts political representation in state and local government,” John Paul Taylor, rights restoration director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said. “We are committed to ending prison gerrymandering because every person—regardless of their incarceration status or proximity to a prison—deserves equal representation in federal, state, and local government.”

The joint campaign asks local decision-makers to exclude the incarcerated population from local redistricting data to ensure that the districts accurately reflect resident populations and constituents and do not disproportionately empower districts with prison populations.

“Local officials can help end prison gerrymandering. While prison gerrymandering may receive the most attention at the state and national levels, it remains an important issue that also manifests at the local level — in cities, towns, counties, and school districts — and that can be easily and effectively resolved by local governments,” Sailor Jones, communications director for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said. “ As a result, the letters provide vital education to local officials about how to ensure that their districts can more accurately reflect and empower their own residents.  Our goal is to encourage local redistricting decision-makers to understand the negative impacts of this practice, exclude incarcerated individuals from their redistricting data, and ultimately ensure that their districts adequately protect justice-involved people and accurately reflect resident populations.”

Glasgow said it is important for these organizations to shed light on the issue of prison gerrymandering to educate the public and effect change.

 “It’s very important to get it out to the community for them to know what is going on,” Glasgow said. “That way we send a message to elected officials that other people are paying attention besides them.”

Those interested in getting involved are asked to contact their local city councilor or county commissioner and ask them to exclude inmates from other towns in their population totals for redistricting.

For more information on getting involved in the fight against prison gerrymandering, contact Rodreshia Russaw at rrussaw@wearetops.org.