Debate over ‘prison gerrymandering’ heats up as RI lawmakers continue redistricting work

Politics

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — As the state works on redistricting after the 2020 Census, 20 statewide groups are calling for an end to what they describe as “prison gerrymandering.”

Currently, prisoners at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) are counted as residents of Cranston, even though imprisoned felons are not eligible to vote, and those that are serving time for misdemeanors don’t necessarily cast their absentee ballots in Cranston.

The 20 groups, including Common Cause Rhode Island and the Rhode Island ACLU, are calling for prisoners to be counted as residents of the communities in which they previously resided.

“Prison gerrymandering does nothing but strip away Rhode Islanders’ constitutional right to fair representation in our government,” John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said in a statement. “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.” 

The Prison Policy Initiative also submitted testimony calling for a change in the way prisoners are accounted for, saying voters who live in the districts that contain the ACI currently have greater political pull that those who don’t.

“If a legislative district has about 15% incarcerated people, such as House District 20 in Rhode Island, that means 85 true residents in that community have the same political clout as 100 residents in any other district throughout the state,” explained the initiative’s Mike Wessler. “By fixing this problem, it’s going to make sure that everyone has an equal voice in their political process.”

But not everyone sees it that way. Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias previously ran for the House seat in District 15, which also contains the ACI.

“There’s a lot of non-voters, we count them where they are physically at the time of the Census,” Frias said. “Students, young children, people who are non-U.S. citizens. So we should be treating everyone about the same when it comes to this, so I don’t see why we should be making a special exception for the prison population.”

So far, 12 other states have changed the way prisoners are counted, including Connecticut and, most recently, Pennsylvania.

Rhode Island’s reapportionment commission is set to have a special meeting on the topic on Nov. 15 at 6 p.m. at the Rhode Island State House.

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