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Prison Gerrymandering

How mass incarceration is leading to individual disenfranchisement and political misrepresentation across the country

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The data

The dashboard shows how mass incarceration shaped political representation from 2011-2021. Prison population, as defined by this dashboard, is the population of prisoners during the 2010 Census count (April 2010). This does not include people in pre-trial detention, jail, probation, juvenile detention facilities, and home monitoring.

The historical context

Prison gerrymandering — the practice of using the U.S. Census counts of incarcerated people as residents of the prison location for legislative districting purposes — has a disproportionate racial impact in particular states. This affects political representation because most prisoners are often relocated hundreds of miles away from their family and community. Very rarely are the needs of the incarcerated a focus of legislators, even though they are counted as part of their district for appointment purposes.

The visualization

The dashboard visualizes the percentage of incarcerated people in a state who are Black and Hispanic compared to the state’s percentage of free people of that racial/ethnic group. Black people make up a greater share, sometimes by a ratio of 5 to 1 or more in all 50 states.

The current implications

Political representation in the next decade will continue to be distorted by holding millions of people in prisons across the country. Being aware of legislative districts with large shares of incorporated residents, and how political parties benefit, is particularly important as state redistricting based on the 2020 Census is happening now. These redistricting decisions will determine political districts for the next 10 years. Currently, there are states with prison populations large enough to account for 1 or more legislative districts in their state houses.

For more on this dashboard, the analysis, and the U.S. Census data behind it, check out this blog post from Racial Equity Data Hub advisor Jared Knowles of Civilytics.

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Data Deep-Dive

Key takeaways to guide analysis

In 9 states, an entire state legislative district could be formed from prisoners

In 9 states, if the incarcerated population were counted as a single district, they would elect their own state representative.

In about 170 legislative districts, 1 in 20 people are incarcerated

These residents count when apportioning legislative seats but are rarely, if ever, given any thought by the legislators representing them.

In 22% of districts, prison population demographics differ significantly from surrounding community

In over 120 legislative districts 20% or more of the prisoners are Black and the free population has 1% of fewer Black people.