Politics & Elections

Grassroots coalition calls on Redistricting Commission to eliminate Prison Gerrymandering

“Prison gerrymandering unfairly inflates the voting power of whiter, more rural communities while diminishing voting power for more diverse and urban communities. It’s time we end this harmful practice in Rhode Island once and for all,” writes Jane Koster, president of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island.
Photo for Grassroots coalition calls on Redistricting Commission to eliminate Prison Gerrymandering

Published on November 3, 2021
By Common Cause Rhode Island

More than 20 statewide organizations sent a letter to the members of Rhode Island’s Special Committee on Reapportionment, urging them to end the harmful practice of prison gerrymandering. The letter calls on committee members to amend the 2020 Census data it uses for redistricting to count Rhode Islanders as residents of their home addresses rather than the prisons where they are temporarily housed. With a single vote, the committee can immediately enact this change so the data can be updated before drawing new district maps.

“Prison gerrymandering does nothing but strip away Rhode Islander’s constitutional right to fair representation in our government,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “State leaders have the opportunity to correct an unjust practice that disproportionately impacts people of color right now before we draw new district maps in place for the next decade. We urge the Reapportionment Committee not to miss this chance to provide every Rhode Islander with fair representation in our government.” 

“Every person in Rhode Island deserves to have equal representation and equal voice in our government, regardless of what political party we belong to, what we look like, or where we live,” said Jane Koster, president of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island. “Prison gerrymandering unfairly inflates the voting power of whiter, more rural communities while diminishing voting power for more diverse and urban communities. It’s time we end this harmful practice in Rhode Island once and for all.” 

According to a 2016 United States Department of Justice study, people spend an average of 2.6 years serving in prison. The United States Census Bureau’s Census count takes place once every ten years, meaning that anyone who is counted as a resident of a prison facility in the 2020 redistricting process will be counted as a resident of the prison long after they return to their permanent address. 

With an affirmative vote to end prison gerrymandering, Rhode Island would become the thirteenth state in the nation to ban counting residents at prisons rather than their home communities. The letter highlights that just last month, Pennsylvania’s Legislative Reapportionment Committee voted to count incarcerated people in their home addresses for redistricting.


Here’s the letter:

Dear Members of the Special Commission on Reapportionment:

At a special upcoming meeting of the commission you will be discussing what to do about the problem of prison-based gerrymandering. Previously you received testimony from 22 community groups asking you to end the practice. Subsequently you’ve heard repeatedly from community members, and fellow commissioners, about their desire to count incarcerated people in their home communities. We write again today to tell you that now is the time to make that change, before another decade passes without solving this problem.

Reassigning people who are incarcerated to their home addresses leads to fairer representation. Because the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) is the state’s only prison complex the districts that encompass the campus (House Districts 15 and 20 and Senate Districts 27 and 31) are particularly distorted. In the case of House District 20 fully 15% of the population is housed in the ACI. That unnecessarily diminishes the voting power of the 109 other House and Senate districts in Rhode Island. Ending the practice of prison-based gerrymandering will make our democracy a fairer one.

If you reassign incarcerated people who were counted at the Adult Correctional Institution on April 1, 2020 you will be complying with state law. § 17-1-3.1 clearly states that a person’s place of residence for voting purposes is his or her fixed and established domicile,” and that doesn’t change because of, “confinement in a correctional facility.” In 2006 Rhode Island restored the right to vote to those convicted of felonies post release. Many of those counted at the ACI in the most recent census will be voting in their home districts while the lines you are drawing are in effect.

A significant portion of those who were counted at the ACI on April 1, 2020 were not convicted of felonies, but rather were being held in intake or for pretrial detention, and may never be convicted of a felony, and therefore lose their voting rights. That will be true for all elections in the next decade and many of them will be voting in their home while living at the ACI.

As you have heard, Rhode Island is capable of making this change now. After a vote by its redistricting commission, Pennsylvania was able to reassign more than 40,000 incarcerated people in just a matter of days. Your consultant Kimball Brace, as part of litigation in 2015, has already undertaken the task successfully. There is no reason to believe this cannot be done before Rhode Island completes our redistricting process.

Because no funding formulas are tied to the data file you use to draw the districts, reassigning those held at the ACI will not affect money flowing to Cranston, or any of the other 38 cities and towns in Rhode Island.

We once again urge you to direct Election Data Services to amend the redistricting data file to reassign incarcerated people counted at the ACI during the 2020 census to their home addresses before drawing new legislative districts for Rhode Island.

  • ACLU of Rhode Island
  • Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education (ARISE)
  • BLM PAC
  • Brown Votes
  • Clean Water Action Rhode Island
  • Common Cause Rhode Island
  • Direct Action for Rights and Equality
  • Formerly Incarcerated Union of Rhode Island
  • Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University
  • League of Women Voters of Rhode Island
  • NAACP Providence Branch
  • Open Doors
  • Planned Parenthood of Southern New England
  • Providence Alumnae Delta Sigma Theta, Inc
  • Reentry Campus Program
  • Rhode Island Center for Justice
  • Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus Rhode Island Latino PAC
  • Rhode Island Working Families Party SUPER PAC
  • United Auto Workers, Region 9A
  • Women’s Fund of Rhode Island
  • The Womxn Project

See all previous reporting on the 2021 Redistricting process in Rhode Island here:

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