Connecticut Prison Gerrymandering Suit Is First of Its Kind

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (CN) – Connecticut was hit with a federal complaint Thursday over its policy of counting prisoners as constituents in the lightly populated, rural areas where they are incarcerated.

In a press call touting what he called a “first-of-its-kind lawsuit,” NAACP General Counsel Brad Berry said this afternoon that prison gerrymandering “dilutes the electoral and representative strength in communities of color.”

The NAACP notes that inmates in Connecticut are disproportionately black or Latino, and that many maintain permanent domiciles in urban areas of the state while serving their prison sentences in far-flung correctional centers where the population is predominantly white.

Though most of these inmates have lost their voting rights on account of their felony convictions, the NAACP says that Connecticut has since 2011 been counting the inmates as residents of the communities where they are incarcerated.

This gives “permanent residents of the prison-gerrymandered districts … more influence over local affairs and greater voting power than residents in other districts, particularly in the urban districts that many prisoners call home,” the complaint states.

Alleging a violation of the 14th Amendment’s one-person, one-vote principle, the NAACp says prison gerrymandering “impermissibly inflates the voting strength of predominantly white voters” who live in the northern and central parts of the state where Connecticut’s prisons are concentrated.

“The practice results in a shifting of voting power away from urban centers such as Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven where a disproportionate number of the mostly African-American and Latino population resided prior to incarceration,” Barry told reporters.“The practice artificially skews voting power towards the more rural and less racially diverse areas where the state has chosen to locate its prisons.” 

Connecticut’s General Assembly has tried and failed to change the law. 

It considered legislation mandating that prisoners be counted at their pre-incarceration addresses for redistricting in its 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions. 

Lawmakers failed to enact legislation in each instance, leaving the 2011 Redistricting Plan unchanged. 

The last time the House, Senate, and Congressional District lines were drawn was in 2011 following the 2010 census. 

Ashley Hall, a student who worked on the case from Yale Law School’s Rule of Law Clinic, said Connecticut is essentially giving more political power to the districts that host prisons “at the expense of everyone else.”

In Connecticut there are 151 members in the House of Representatives, and 36 in the state Senate.

According to Connecticut State’s published data after the 2011 redistricting, the ideal House district size is 23,670 residents. For a lawmaker who lives in a town with a prison, however, that number is much smaller because prisoners who can’t vote are counted. 

For instance, as of November 2011, House District 59 contained only 21,001 residents when prisoners are counted in their home districts. When compared with House District 97, which would have a population of approximately 24,752 residents when prisoners are counted in their home districts, the actual number of constituents in House District 59 was 15.84 percent smaller. 

Senate District 7, which includes the state’s largest prison complex, contained 102,622 residents as of 2011. But when the incarcerated population is removed it’s reduced to 94,692 residents,

Scot X. Esdaile, president of NAACP Connecticut State Conference, said he hopes the lawsuit will be a model for other lawsuits.

“Prison gerrymandering is the norm in the U.S. combined with mass incarceration,” Esdaile said. “It undermines the voting power of urban and minority communities showing unfair favoritism to white, rural communities.” Berry said the organization plans to challenge the practice in other states too.z

Representatives for Governor Dannel P. Malloy said their office is reviewing the lawsuit.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is named as a co-defendant but testified in favor of eliminating prison gerrymandering in 2011. She was not immediately available for comment.

Prison populations have declined precipitously in Connecticut over the last eight years. As June 1 there were 13,417 inmates incarcerated in Connecticut’s prisons and jails.

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