California has the largest prison system in the Western world and it is busting at the seams. Media outlets report triple-bunking and inmates sleeping in gym areas. Prisons are so overcrowded that inmates are dying at a rate of one per week. Recidivism is so high that more Black and Brown men and women are returning to prisons than graduating from high schools in South Los Angeles. Perhaps the state see’s a more lucrative payoff in the prison system than the educational system. If that’s not enough, with the groundswell of 2010 Census promotion critics would argue that another way that California and other states are capitalizing off of the prison system is by counting inmates in the wrong place—resulting in inaccurate distribution of political power and funding.
Although an average California State Prison stay is about 16 months, every ten years the US Census Bureau counts women and men in prison not as residents of their home addresses but as residents of the correctional facilities where they are incarcerated. This is startling considering that California law does not define a prison cell is a residence (California Election Code, §2025). Still, when it comes time for redistricting in 2011 the census count from state prisons will be used to redraw state and local district boundaries. Given the current counting method, smaller counties (whose population numbers are padded by prisons) will have the same amount of voting power as larger counties with largely non-incarcerated residents. This is not only a state issue; this has also become a national issue. In one Iowa City, the use of this faulty census data resulted in a local resident being elected to city council with only 2 votes because 96% of this particular district was incarcerated and could not actually vote. In one northern California senate district, more than 11% of the district is made up of incarcerated persons. These are cases of political representation without resident population and can lead to a controversial practice called gerrymandering. This is when legislative districts are drawn in a way that can influence election outcomes. Prison-based gerrymandering is when the prison census is used to pad population counts—counts that can ultimately influence voting power, policy, and funding for over a decade.
Why does this matter?
Los Angeles County contains 28% of California’s population. Thirty-four percent of the state’s prisoners come from the county—yet the county contains only 3% of California’s state prison cells. That means that about 31 percent of the approximately 165,000 people in the state prison system are being counted in the wrong county. Prison-based gerrymandering should raise eyebrows throughout California especially in those counties that along with Los Angeles County contain the highest concentrations of communities containing formerly incarcerated residents that have returned home.
Furthermore, those of us that do work relating to the criminal [in]justice system know all too well that many of the hundreds of thousands women and men incarcerated across California are products of sentencing inequity and financial exploitation. In the case of prison-based gerrymandering, grassroots organizers must challenge this practice of exploitation and demand that our incarcerated brothers and sisters be supported and not again used for profit. We must stop prison-based gerrymandering dead in its tracks and hold officials accountable to bring needed resources to our community through a proper census count.
The stakes are high and we should make sure our communities are supported not exploited. Our communities must not be diluted of voting power and resources—no matter how big or small. Conditions in poor and working class communities have been exacerbated by the economic downturn and we need resources now more than ever. We must work to close the loop that makes prison-based gerrymandering possible.Grassroots statewide forces need to organize and become key players in a statewide effort to end prison-based gerrymandering in California. Voters have continuously elected representatives that fall short of moving the interests of constituents that elected them. We must demand that our state officials take a stand on behalf of their constituents—incarcerated or not. Call the office of your State representatives and demand that when it is time to vote for prison counting legislation, they vote in favor of a census practice where inmates are counted as residents of their own communities.