NAACP suing state for prison gerrymandering

(Image via The Pittsburgh Current/Adobe Stock)

By John N. Mitchell

Just weeks before the 2020 Census is set to begin, three formerly incarcerated Philadelphia men and the local chapter of the NAACP are suing the state to stop “prison-based gerrymandering.”

They argue in their civil lawsuit, which was filed in Commonwealth Court on Thursday by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Ballard Spahr, that it’s illegal for Pennsylvania to count prisoners as residents of the counties where they are incarcerated rather than the county where they were living before they were incarcerated.

The practice “artificially inflates the political power of predominantly white and rural districts where most of the prisons are located,” said Cara McClellan, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Simultaneously, it dilutes the representational power of communities of color in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which is where most of the state’s prison population comes from.”

Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, compared prison gerrymandering to the so-called “3/5 Compromise” that allowed Southern states to count three-fifths of the enslaved population when it came to apportioning the number of a state’s representatives in Congress.

“You used our bodies for labor and for breeding down through history,” Muhammad said. “And now you are using our bodies to help redraw congressional maps. This isn’t just happening in Pennsylvania; it’s happening all over the country.

“Just think about how diabolical this is,” Muhammad continued. “Many of those prisoners don’t have the right to vote, yet they will be counted as a resident of a particular county. Jobs go to those counties to operate the prisons. The political representation goes to that county. All that’s left in the Black neighborhoods you come from is a broken family with less representation. This is clearly some racket cooked up to punish the Black and poor.”

Muhammad pointed out that Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey have been counting prisoners in their home districts.

“What are we waiting for?” he asked.

More than 12,000 prisoners — roughly 25% of the state’s total prison population — are from Philadelphia.

If those prisoners were counted as Philadelphians in the Census, the city would gain at least one more state House seat, according to an analysis done by criminologists at Villanova University. It would also get more stated and federal funding.

State Rep. Joanna McClinton introduced legislation in March 2019 that would end prison-based gerrymandering. House Bill 940 was referred to the House State Government Committee, and no action has been taken.

“As a society that continues to advance and address injustices, we must acknowledge that prison gerrymandering affects the most vulnerable communities and encourages racial and representational inequality,” McClinton wrote in an op-ed on PennLive.com in November.

The redistricting process is set to begin in 2021, after the census is completed.

McClellan said NAACP leaders hope the lawsuit will require Pennsylvania to retroactively count prisoners as residents of their home counties rather than the prison counties.

The NAACP in 2018 filed a similar lawsuit in Connecticut. That case is still pending.

John N. Mitchell is a columnist and reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.