Commentary

Prison Gerrymandering: Who counts in Pennsylvania? That depends on who’s counting | Opinion

Incarceration should not obliterate civic engagement – or inflate long-standing imbalances of power

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, speaks at a February 2021 press conference.

By Robert Saleem Holbrook

Long before I could name it, I experienced prison gerrymandering at a maximum-security prison in central Pennsylvania for men who refused or were unable to adjust to the department’s rules and regulations. As if to cement that reputation, every time prisoners exited the cell block, we walked through the prison’s rotunda where, enshrined within glass, was a leather saddle used to break horses. The implication was obvious: Men could be broken, too.

In that rural prison, it was easy to feel that I did not count, especially since I was stripped of my right to vote. Little did I know my body was being traded for political favors via prison gerrymandering. In my 27 years inside, I came to understand prison gerrymandering as another tactic to undermine Black Political Power, kin to the Black Reconstruction backlash, when white legislatures rolled back Black political gains.

Ending prison gerrymandering is just as important as ending the Jim Crow Black Codes, yet the district maps that are being debated today, just months before midterms, continue to reflect the unjust reallocation of political power that we need to stop.

SCI-Huntingdon remains a classic example of prison gerrymandering: Black and Brown people from Pennsylvania’s urban communities comprised 70% of the prison population. The prison administration was close to 95% white. The Congressional district that housed the prison was 90% white.

And the people incarcerated in SCI-Huntingdon were counted as residents of that county, despite the absence of a voice or a vote. The imbalance of power was as obvious as that saddle: White people were in charge, and people of color didn’t count. As I watch voter suppression laws being instituted today, I am reminded of that saddle over and over.

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Until 1812, senatorial districts followed county boundaries. But when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry carved new districts of such irregular contours, he was mocked with people saying they looked like salamanders.

No, the pundits replied, Gerry-manders – politically driven district maps designed to maximize one party’s influence or repress a class of voters. Fast-forward to “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck,” carved out in 2011 to preserve a Republican majority. The jokes mask serious implications: Drawn after each census and in place for a decade at a time, gerrymandered districts are designed to exploit the vote.

Prison gerrymandering takes the practice to new depths, beyond the three-fifths compromise of 1787, by wiping out prisoners’ voices altogether, counting them as residents of the counties where the prisons are sited, not the communities they call home, and to which most will eventually return.

I have opposed prison gerrymandering for over two decades. In 2020, I authored an op-ed on prison gerrymandering when I was a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

That fight continues.

Last summer, Pennsylvania’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission voted 3-2 to partially end the practice. The vote split along party lines: People serving lengthy sentences (life without parole, for example, or bids of 10+ years) will still be counted as county residents.

This loophole sustains prison gerrymandering. A partial dismantling of the practice is not enough. To correct the imbalance of political power once and for all, we must eliminate prison gerrymandering altogether.

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As we enter the 2022 midterms and the battle over the final district maps continues, it is disheartening to see that, once again, the voices of incarcerated people are completely ignored in the debate. Politicians seem to have agreed to keep using people in prison as a way of inflating resources and votes for certain districts, while stripping resources and voting power from the families and communities that those same people call home.

Incarceration should not obliterate civic engagement – or inflate long-standing imbalances of power. Ending prison gerrymandering will restore a measure of balance to our home communities, and right the wrongs of salamander-shaped voting blocs that privilege the few over the many. This battle is not over.

Robert Saleem Holbrook is the executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a law project dedicated to abolishing race and class based discrimination in the criminal justice system and all forms of state violence. He is also a Communications Institute Fellow at The Opportunity Agenda.

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