Prison gerrymandering should end in Connecticut

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In the two years since I left York Correctional Institution, I’ve earned a reputation for having an opinion on anything related to prison.

Shifting inmates to hospitals instead of prisons? Don’t bother – the treatment in both are the same.   Ban the Box? Nice start – but doesn’t go far enough. Our Governor, Dannel Malloy, is the ultimate criminal justice reformer? Not really, at least not yet.

On prison gerrymandering – the practice of counting prisoners in the town in which they are incarcerated instead of their hometowns for the U.S. census – I have an opinion, too; the phenomenon should be called something else.  The phrase “prison gerrymandering” puts voting and prisoners in the same thought, so the topic makes people think that it’s a prisoner’s problem when it’s not.

Connecticut residents — both in and outside of prison — need to understand how their own interests are at stake when the General Assembly votes on Senate Bill 459 sometime in the next six weeks.

When the last census was taken in April 2010, I was one of 11 people from Orange held in the state’s correctional facilities. All of us were counted in towns other than Orange. I should have been counted at home (where I am registered to vote), but I wasn’t because the Census Bureau counts me where the prison was located, so at redistricting time I ended up being counted as if I were a constituent of that district.

This didn’t seem to harm me in an immediate way.

The people immediately hurt by this were the other residents of Orange. Because, instead of counting us in the district where I and other Orange-based inmates would return and vote, we were counted toward the constituent total of a different district.

Eleven people being miscounted is probably, ultimately, not that big of a deal. But consider the example of Hartford, a city that lost 2,631 people to incarceration when the last census was taken.

Wherever they were counted, they padded the population in that district even though the likelihood of their returning and voting in that district was close to zero.

When those 2,631 people return to their hometown of Hartford, to a district that already includes the 20,000 people needed for a House district or 80,000 for a Senate district, the number of potential voters in the city would go over the district count, namely to 22,631 or 82,631.

This is the impetus for the bill to end prison gerrymandering — that the voters in places where there are no prisons, namely 157 or 92 percent of Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities — have their representation diluted.  This violates the equal representation required by the United States Supreme Court in a series of decisions spanning more than 50 years.

It’s more than just a theoretical argument; in Jefferson County, Fla., half of the voting age residents are incarcerated. A Florida appeals court decided just last week -– on the same day that Connecticut’s Judiciary Committee passed the bill for a vote by the entire legislature [March 21] – that counting prisoners in their facilities rather than in their hometowns was blatantly unconstitutional.

While come communities lose representation, others gain power. One senate district in the state, District 7, contains no fewer than six correctional facilities. If the census was taken last October, the last date for which prison population counts are available, Connecticut’s Senate District 7 would count 5,179 people who are constituents of other senators.

It may seem like residents of East Lyme, the town that contains York CI, would prefer gerrymandering as Senate District 20 counts all of those inmates in its district count even though they aren’t voting. But consider that the Niantic Annex, another prison in Senate District 20, closed in February. Assuming it remains shuttered, the district lines will need to be redrawn again after the 2020 census to compensate for that loss of people; it’s possible that State Sen. Paul Formica, whom people of East Lyme elected, won’t be able represent all of his supporters in a few years because some voters will be cut out of the old district to make a new one that reflects the new census count with the closed prison.

In the age of decarceration and justice reform, district lines will need to be redrawn every 10 years.  And when district lines move, it changes who is eligible to represent people in a certain location.

My time in prison taught me how important it is to choose our leaders.

As a newly sentenced inmate, I entered with masses of parolees who were being returned to custody in the aftermath of the Cheshire murders.  Our popularly elected governor at the time, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, had decided to remand everyone on parole, regardless of their success and safety out in society.

While I was incarcerated, I earned approximately one year off my sentence from Risk Reduction Earned Credits, through a program that Governor Malloy signed into law in his first year in office after many state legislators opposed it.

Had other people been elected governor or state representatives and senators, my life would have been different. Now I see, in very real terms, that our democracy is too important to be tainted by inaccurate counting methods. I assume other Connecticut residents whose lives are affected by policy feel the same.

The problem is that Connecticut residents’ attitudes toward prison gerrymandering have been influenced by the association of gerrymandering and federal and state funding. It’s a false connection that has been used by lawmakers – those who stand to have their district’s count fixed in favor of the people – to trick the residents of the state to urge their legislative representatives not to support any bill that stops conducting the census this way.

Contrary to rumor, ending prison gerrymandering in the state does not affect any funding from the federal government nor any state funding for municipalities.

Prison gerrymandering isn’t an issue belonging to any one group; we all lose with prison gerrymandering. It’s purely an issue of constitutional rights – a right to equal representation that everyone enjoys. Connecticut residents who don’t have large prisons in their district have that right to equal representation watered down.

Prison gerrymandering should be called “power dilution” because that’s what it is.  Four states have passed laws to assure that prisoners are counted in their hometowns for the purposes of determining populations for legislative districts to avoid this unnecessary – and illegal – shift of power.

It’s time that Connecticut does the same.

Chandra Bozelko lives in Orange and is a former inmate at York Correctional Institution.

What do you think?

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