Politics & Elections

The RI Redistricting Commission hearing on prison gerrymandering

“If the state really does believe that imprisoned people are in fact residents of the districts in which they are imprisoned, why are they then not allowed to send their children to school there?” asked Providence resident Rachel Bishop. “This hypocrisy makes clear the cynicism behind this argument.”
Photo for The RI Redistricting Commission hearing on prison gerrymandering

Published on November 29, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

On November 15 the Rhode Island Redistricting Commission devoted a special meeting to discuss the issue of prison gerrymandering, the process of not counting incarcerated individuals as living at their pre-incarceration address but at the prison for the purposes of drawing election maps. The process as it currently exists causes communities of color to be politically under-represented and the communities around prisons to be over-represented.

The Prison Policy Initiative explains it this way:

Currently, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people in the census block that contains the prison, rather than the census blocks that contain their home addresses. When states redistrict based on this data without adjusting for incarcerated populations, this results in prison gerrymandering: a significant enhancement of representation in districts with prisons, and consequently a dilution of representation for all other residents in all other districts in the state.

In many states, prison gerrymandering affords a small number of districts with prisons 1%–5% more political influence than the residential populations of those districts actually warrant. Even in those states with this modest impact, prison gerrymandering is considered a serious ill that is to be avoided. By contrast, prison gerrymandering is a far larger problem in Rhode Island, where over 15% of House District 20 and 8% of House District 15 are made up of incarcerated people from other parts of the state.

In Rhode Island there has been a push from Common Cause RI and many other groups – including BLM RI PAC, Rhode Island Latino PAC, ARISE, the NAACP and more – to end this practice. There has also been pushback against changing the system from the Mayor of Cranston and conservatives.

“To my understanding this is the first time any reapportionment commission has focused on [prison redistricting] in this in-depth manner,” said Senator Stephen Archambault (Democrat, District 22, Smithfield, Johnston, North Providence), who co-chairs the Rhode Island Redistricting Commission, providing context for the night’s discussion. “We fully understand this is a challenging issue, that’s being grappled with in many states across the country… We also recognize that this is an emerging area of law.”

Kimball Brace, from Election Data Services, is the redistricting consultant hired by the state. He gave a thorough overview of the current conditions regarding prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island.

“In order to see if it is possible to reallocate the prison population, you gotta figure out who was there on census day,” said Brace. “In a number of states, that became difficult.”


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The Rhode Island Department of Corrections provided data to Election Data Services with the caveat that they didn’t know how accurate the addresses they were providing are. Brace opined that, to do this well, states have to “plan ahead of time” and that the process is not one that can be easily done on the fly. Some states reallocating the incarcerated to their home addresses, such as Virginia, were only able to reallocate 62% of the population.

Brace outlined a number of issues:

[former] State Senator Harold Metts countered that “poor people move a lot” but generally stay in the same neighborhoods. The issue, in other words, is not that complicated. For people who live a comfortable middle class lifestyle, their home address is a consistent thing, changing only occasionally during big life events. For people close to or under the poverty line, an address can be a constantly shifting thing. The privilege of decision makers can sometimes blind them to this reality.

Metts also noted that though the incarcerated serve their sentences in Cranston, the resources the need when they get out are centered in Providence. This is where they go when they get out.

Brace went over the data provided by the United States Census and the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. There were some variations.

To get the information from the Department of Corrections, Election Data Services entered into a non-disclosure agreement with the state. This is to ostensibly protect the personal information of those incarcerated.

Brace, during his discussion, constantly referred to legislative action to deal with this issue, subtly framing the conversation by downplaying the commission’s ability to deal with the issue.

Brace noted that for various reasons, around 691 incarcerated persons would not be reallocated to a home address, or about 26.4% of the incarcerated population. One of the listed reasons, home confinement, confused people in the room and spurred Representative Katherine Kazarian (Democrat, District 63, East Providence) to ask, “Wouldn’t they have to have an address if they’re on home confinement?”

Breaking down the number of incarcerated, we learn that the majority of those held by the Department of Corrections come from Providence, Pawtucket and Woonsocket.

Given the small numbers involved, Brace wondered if doing this work would have a “practical impact.” The biggest impacts, said Brace, will be felt by the districts that currently house the Adult Correctional Institutions, the cities of Cranston and Warwick.

Here’s the video:

Public Testimony:

Cranston Mayor Kenneth Hopkins (Republican) was the first to testify. He made several points:

  1. Most states, including New England states, count the incarcerated as living at the prison, not their home address.
  2. Prison gerrymandering is constitutional.
  3. Cranston taxpayers pay for the municipal services at the ACI, including fire and police.
  4. The United States Census counts the incarcerated as living at the prison. They count those living at nursing homes, colleges or military bases the same way.
[former] Senator Metts noted that Cranston does receive PILOT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) money from the state for costs incurred from hosting the prisons.

“We see the issue of prison gerrymandering as part and parcel of the work [we do],” said Public Defender Michael DiLauro. “That work being that marginalized communities, like those that our clients come from, that those folks have an opportunity to participate in the process, and to have that participation mean something.”

Prisoner gerrymandering, said Harrison Tuttle, Executive Director of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC robs incarcerated people “and their neighborhoods of their rightful representation.

“Prisoner gerrymandering removes representation from communities that are already under represented… Prison gerrymandering is absolutely continuing systemic racism that affects all levels of electoral politics. Continuing this is not only doing a disservice to our democracy, it’s doing a disservice specifically to Black and brown people all across our state.”

Tuttle’s testimony elicited a response to Senator Jessica de la Cruz (Republican, District 23, Burrillville, Glocester).

“You have mentioned that it’s ‘systemic racism’ to count individuals at the ACI. Specifically you said Black and brown people.” Citing 2019 data, de la Cruz noted that the majority of people incarcerated at the ACI are white, to groans from the audience.

“We can’t call it systemic racism if most of the people incarcerated are white,” said de la Cruz, to outright laughter from this in attendance.

“You may not like the data, but the data’s not racist. It speaks for itself.”

Jessica Cigna is the Chair of the Providence Ward Boundary Redistricting Committee.

Jackie Goldman testified on behalf of themselves and the Providence DSA.

  1. 47% of the population of the country live in states that have rejected prison gerrymandering.
  2. It is a double standard to ask someone how long they are staying at the ACI, since we don’t ask anyone else how long they plan to stay at their address when conducting the census.
  3. Specifically to Senator de la Cruz, Goldman pointed out that there is a difference between a raw count and a rate. Rates of folks who are incarcerated, by color, are disproportionally represented.
[former] Senator Metts also took the opportunity to explain to Senator de la Cruz what systemic racism means and how it is measured.

Aleks Kajstura from the Prison Policy Institute provided both in person and written testimony, which is well worth your time to read.

  1. Rhode Island State Law clearly states that an incarcerated person keeps the address the had before they were incarcerated.
  2. Those incarcerated persons who can vote are require to vote absentee, from their home district, when they do.
  3. Talking about the differences between the ACI data and the Census data at the ACI, Kajstura noted that the Census gets its data from the ACI.
  4. The rates of geocoding that Brace testified to is “on the betta end” of states doing this for the first time. It’s worth doing even if it’s not perfect.

John Marion, Executive Director of Common Cause RI, reiterated the point that ending prison gerrymandering is a good idea despite the fact that it can’t be done perfectly.

Mayor Hopkins’ point that other states in New England are not doing this isn’t complete. Connecticutt is doing this, and in Vermont and New Hampshire, incarcerated people are able to vote.

Marion also question the Department of Corrections’ decision to keep the data released to Election Data Services secret. “Other states have made this public data public,” said Marion, “and we are withholding this information from the legislature, essentially. As a matter of oversight, I think this is important.”

[former] Representative Stephen Ucci opined that the task of the Redistricting Commission is to use the final census data to redraw the maps. It violates the “plain words” of the enabling legislation to reallocate the prison population.

Marion countered that the Census Bureau, understanding that states are interested in reallocation, provided special notated files to help in this effort. [It should also be noted that Election Data Services has already massaged and reallocated census data in coming up with better borders.]

Ucci facilely replied that moving people around, anywhere you want, is a slippery slope.

Senator de la Cruz noted that “if we are going to do it for prisoners, it’s only fair and equitable to do it across the board, in all areas.”

Such as people in hospitals, psych patients, etc, said Senator de la Cruz.

“It’s not an issue of race for me, it’s an issue of fairness.”

Fixing this would simply be following Rhode Island law, said Marion. Rhode Island law, as enacted by the General Assembly, says that a person’s domicile does not change because of their incarceration. “By fixing this, you would just be following the law,” said Marion.

“We thinks there’s absolutely no question that the commission does have the authority to recommend addressing the problem of prison gerrymandering,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the Rhode Island ACLU.

Steven Ahlquist from Uprise RI testified:

Providence resident Nina Wolff Landau took on Senator de la Cruz’s earlier stats on prison populations by noting that 75% of Rhode Island’s population is white, but only 43% of people incarcerated in Rhode Island are white while 7% of the state’s population is Black while 30% of the people incarcerated in the state are Black.

“Incarceration is an issue of racism, and therefore prison gerrymandering is an issue of gerrymandering as well,” said Wolff Landau.

Kristen Langworthy noted that the “community of interest” being spoken for at the meeting is the community of people incarcerated at the ACI.

“I think that community is not here tonight because they are incarcerated. Their voice is being reflected by members of their community, by advocates, by interested people all over this state,” said Langworthy. “We are trying to speak, as Rhode Islanders, to make sure that we are equally represented by our government.”

What has been the purpose of all the public outreach the Redistricting Commission has ben engaged in, asked Langworthy, if they aren’t interested in acting on the demands of the community?

Providence resident Bret Jacob talked about his experience as a child dealing with the temporary loss of his mother to incarceration.

“I share this story to emphasize that the resources people need, that they draw on to make it through their sentence and the people they rely on to re-enter their home upon release – and the power of their voices – really exist in the communities they live in.”

“I feel sorry for anyone who has studied the history of the United States and comes away thinking there are no real serious ongoing racial issues in this country,” said the Reverend Doctor Donnie Anderson, representing the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus. “And this is one of those issues… You can do this, so please, please do it.”

“It is important to us that our state commit to ending this undemocratic and racist practice immediately,” said Andrea Rojas, an organizer with the Working Families Party in Rhode Island. “In many ways prison gerrymandering perpetuates racist practices in our government that amplifies the already existing over policing and over incarceration of communities of color while bumping the voting power of people in cities and towns where the prisons are located.”

“I noticed you emphasized ‘racist’ a few times and I would say this,” said Senator de la Cruz.”if you truly feel that way, then you should take issue with the Democratic Party of Rhode Island who have held power for over eighty years.

“However, I don’t think that my Democratic colleagues are racist or perpetuate racism, but if you do feel that way, you may want to consider how you vote in the future.”

Representative Grace DiazRepresentative Grace Diaz (Democrat, District 11, Providence) called de la Cruz’s comment unacceptable. Representative Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence) agreed with Diaz. [Note: This paragraph initially had a missing portion and has been made more clear.]

“The current practice means that the votes of whiter, wealthier people in those districts where there are prisons count more than others in Rhode Island,” noted Providence Resident Rachel Bishop. This violates the principle of one person one vote.

Countering Cranston Mayor Hopkins, Bishop asked, “If the state really does believe that imprisoned people are in fact residents of the districts in which they are imprisoned, why are they then not allowed to send their children to school there?

“This hypocrisy makes clear the cynicism behind this argument.”

Countering Senator de la Cruz, Bishop hammered him the point that, “The rates of imprisonment of Black and Latina people are higher than those of white people. They are disproportionate because of racism.”

“At our country’s founding we denied suffrage to enslaved Black people and counted them as 3/5ths towards their congressional district’s size. Today, we deny suffrage to imprisoned people who are disproportionately Black and we do not count them towards their home district size.

“The intent here of individuals is irrelevant. The impact is racist, and needs to end.”

Republican politician Steven Frias had the following points:

  1. Reallocation will be difficult, complex and you will get it wrong sometimes.
  2. Once you open this “can of worms” you’re going to have a whole bunch of issues about the college kids, many of whom, Frias maintains, were not on campus the day the Census counted them there due to Covid shutdowns.

“Rhode Island is one of the original 13 colonies,” noted Lisa Sampson from the Rhode Island League of Women Voters. “This is not the first time that Rhode Island has had the opportunity to pioneer democracy. It’s a beautiful coincidence, I think, that we could be the 13th state to do away with prison gerrymandering.”

“I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to students and others,” said Cherie Cruz, “and it really brings up to be this argument of domicile versus resident… I assure you no one at the ACI chose that as their home or residence. I assure you as a parent who had a cild incarcerated that we counted him on the census as home.”

Cruz also noted that at any one time there are hundreds of people at the ACI who are eligible to vote, and those votes are recorded in their home districts, not Cranston.

Warwick resident Jordan Goyette:

Cranston resident Candace Brown Casey spoke in favor of ending prison redistricting.

Brown Casey noted that country to college students, incarcerated people are not contributing to the local economy through visiting local shops and restaurants.

Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung (Republican, District 15, Cranston):

https://youtu.be/Unzy5BTrytM

How the maps are drawn has huge implications for th entire state said Nick Horton, co-Executive Director of Open Doors, that provides services and advocacy for people getting out of prison.

“Back in 2016 the Speaker’s race was decided by 85 votes. Those results could have been different had the district not included about 1000 individuals who were in prison,” noted Horton.

Horton also noted:

  1. College students have the ability to decide where they want to register, either at the college of at their original home address.
  2. “Systemic racism is a big part of the prison system. Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people in their lifetime. It’s a pretty clear disparity.”

Jim Vincent President of the NAACP Providence Branch is also a resident of Cranston.

“I love Cranston,” said Vincent, “but one thing I love more than Cranston is justice, and prison gerrymandering is wrong. It’s injustice.”

“Our cause is the cause of human justice, human rights and human security,” said Commission member Alex Reyes, an organizer with IBEW Local 99. “And my understanding, from all the advocates that came here today, they’re just trying to restore right to people who do not have rights… I’m glad to be enlightened and be part of this commission that has an opportunity to hear the voice of the people and people that are standing up for the rights of people that can’t. I’m honored to be here tonight and experience this.”

Adam Myers, a political science professor from Providence College countered points made about other groups not counted in their home communities, such as college students, military personnel and people in group homes.

  1. Other folks who are institutionalized are the only other group comparable to those who are incarcerated.
  2. Folks in nursing homes consist of about 9000 individuals spread across 54 House Districts. Incarcerated people are concentrated in three House Districts.
  3. Only 161 individuals in Rhode Island are institutionalized in places other than prisons or nursing homes, spread out across six House Districts.
  4. The prison situation is unique.

Providence resident Andrew Poyant:

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