In this Episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway discusses prison gerrymandering with Peter Wagner, the Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, and Khalil Muhammad, author of the Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America.
EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN: Welcome to Rattling the Bars. Today I would like to take a look at prison gerrymandering, a federal and local policy that affects millions of people. I have here with me today to kind of explain this and look at it, two guests, Peter Wagner from the Prison Policy Initiative and Professor Khalil Mohammad. Thank you for joining me Peter and Khalil. PETER WAGNER: Glad to be here Eddie. KHALIL MOHAMMAD: Thank you for having us. CONWAY: Peter would you explain to us what prison gerrymandering is? WAGNER: Sure. So gerrymandering is drawing legislative district lines in a way to control the outcome of the election. So what matters is not who the voters vote for but how the lines are drawn. That controls how decisions are made. Well, prison based gerrymandering are when elected officials use the presence of a prison to give more political influence to the communities that host the prisons and to dilute the votes of people who live in every other district in the state, particularly the communities of color where people who are in prison disproportionately come from. So it’s a way to control our democracy in favor of prison expansion. CONWAY: Does that also involve tax incentives to those districts as a relationship to the number of citizens that’s counted in those districts? WAGNER: The good news is that formula funding is not affected because most government funding formulas are too smart to be fooled by the Census Bureau’s prison miscount. But when you give elected officials who have prisons extra influence they can use that then to change policy decisions to write the criminal justice laws to build more prisons to do things that hurt urban communities. But it doesn’t affect funding formulas but does affect every political decision that the legislative branch makes. CONWAY: Okay Khalil, could you give us a little historical oversight on how this had been used in the black community and America in general? MOHAMMAD: Well the census has always played a big part in debates about the significance of minority populations relative to a majority white one. Most people of course know the most famous thing in the constitution with the 3/5ths clause which gave increased power of political representation to the southern states as a compromise at the state of a nation’s founding. So the census has always been a political instrument. Gerrymandering even beyond the question of how do you count inmates as parts of states in their home residents is very much so a part of our local, state, and federal elections. Who gets to vote for whom is a critical feature of power and how it’s expressed in America? With prison gerrymandering in particular it’s really been explored as a kind of consequence of all of our attention to mass incarceration and much of this work started with felony disenfranchisement while looking back at the Jim Crow period to understand how people who have been criminalized and many of whom have been incarcerated were stripped of their citizenship rights, the most [inaud.] being the right to vote. What we see now is really playing catchup to the impact of four decades of tremendous incarceration disproportionately affecting black and brown communities where to add insult to injury not only are people incarcerated not voting but those who have served time and have an essential code that society also in too many incidents are not voting. But even when they’re incarcerated the whole community [inaud.] their political power to some degree with relative to [rural] overwhelmingly white communities. CONWAY: Peter I noticed only two states, Maryland and New York has outlawed the use of debt residency status. What’s the status on the other 48 states and what’s being done about it? WAGNER: Well as you said New York and Maryland passed legislation that counts incarcerated people at home for the purposes of their legislative districts. Two more states, Delaware and California have passed legislation that will do the same thing starting in 2021. And other states have proposed legislation. Often its passed in one chamber but it hasn’t passed anywhere else yet. And there’s also been a national movement to solve this problem federally by convincing the Census Bureau that a prison is not a residence and that the Census Bureau should count incarcerated people as residents of their home addressed where they legally still live and where they’re going to go back home after their release. If the Census Bureau was to count incarcerated people at home, that would end prison gerrymandering in one fail swoop. CONWAY: Okay and I understand that there’s been a number of organizations that have signed onto this as well as hundreds of thousands of letters written in support of it. Is that going to have any impact on the 2020 census? WAGNER: I hope so. The Census Bureau rarely gets very many comments. I believe the record number of comments they ever got was 1,700. They got 100,000 people in the last two most have asked the Census Bureau to end prison gerrymandering so I hope the Census Bureau is listening and understands that not only is prison gerrymandering something that a lot of people oppose, it’s also something that 100,000 people has said is wrong. If the Census Bureau values accuracy and fairness, this is a change that they need to make. CONWAY: Professor Mohammad, this is an issue that touches our community as well as communities as color and so on. What if anything should we be doing to kind of address this because as you kind of pointed out it’s taken away our ability to exercise any political muscle. MOHAMMAD: Well the areas they [inaud.] as well as the individuals who’ve already written to the Census Bureau need to stay focused on the issue as an important issue. Interestingly by bearing witness to the fact that the 2016 presidential election has lost in some ways it’s focus on the criminal justice system as a major topic of bipartisan reform, this is an issue that we can’t afford to lose any standing to organizations like [inaud.] are really critical in both producing data as well as advocacy around the issue. So organizations like the Legal Defense Fund and the Pennsylvania Prison Society as well as community organizations and black and brown activists are focused on this issue but they’ve got to mobilize bodies to do it. There ought to be people standing outside the Census Bureau raising national attention to this issue because the damage is too significant and is too hard to address when these things only come around every 10 years. CONWAY: Okay once again thank you for joining me. I hope you keep us updated on this as the letters and protests goes to the Census Bureau so we can make a determination on what’s going to happen in 2020 and how that might impact us. Thank you. And thank you for joining Rattling the Bars. MOHAMMAD: Thanks for having me on. WAGNER: We’re glad to do that.
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