Pending bills in the Rhode Island General Assembly would require the state to count prisoners as residents of their hometowns — not the town the prison is in — when determining state and county legislative districts.
While Rhode Island currently uses federal census data to draw district lines, the census lists prisoners as residents of their prison, even though prisoners cannot vote in most states, including Rhode Island.
As a result, Cranston, the location of the Adult Correctional Institutions prison and roughly 3,000 prisoners, gets "propped up" — receiving representation based on inflated numbers — said Bruce Reilly, a committee organizer for Direct Action for Rights and Equality, a prisoners' rights group.
"A voting district that is filled with empty voters, so to speak, is not on par with a voting district that's filled with actual voters," Reilly said. By revising census data to locate prisoners in their hometowns, more state aid money could be directed toward the places that prisoners came from and will most likely return to, he added.
Bills were introduced to the state House of Representatives and state Senate last month to alter how prisoners' residences are determined. Both bills would require all institutions that incarcerate people for crimes, including mental health or private facilities, to provide the last known addresses for every prisoner in their charge. This information would then be used to adjust federal census data for drawing legislative districts.
State Rep. Joseph Almeida, D-Providence, the sponsor of the House bill, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that the adjustment would lead to a "great financial increase for South Providence and (the) Washington Park" area of his district. Proposing the legislation "was a matter of financial fairness," he wrote.
Because state law specifies that prisoners are still residents of their homes, the current system is illegal in Rhode Island and must be changed, said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative. Though it is traditional for states to use federal census data to determine legislative districts, they do not have to do so and some states already alter data to account for soldiers and students, he added.
The bill in the House could progress to a floor vote "in a month or so" and the Senate will hold a hearing on the bill in the next few weeks, Reilly said.
"We have leadership support," he said. While Cranston stands to lose the most from the change, house majority leader State Rep. Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, told the Providence Journal March 14 that he supports the bill.
All legislators have an interest in passing the bill because it will remove Cranston residents' inflated voting power, Wagner said. "Prisoners are being used as pawns, but the aggrieved party is everybody who is in a district (that) doesn't have a prison in it."
Though it's too late for the federal census to change its system of counting prisoners for the upcoming census, the Census Bureau will now include in its data the locations of prisons, Reilly said.
National advocates hope the next census will count prisoners differently, but until then, activists are trying to institute reform on a state-by-state basis. Six states besides Rhode Island are considering similar legislation, and others plan to introduce such bills in the near future, Wagner said.