As a state commission prepares to propose changes to Rhode Island’s electoral districts that will last for the next decade, several activist groups and community members are advocating that people who are incarcerated should be counted as members of their home communities. This challenges the status quo of allocating people who are incarcerated to the district that contain the prisons in which they physically reside — a practice that people like Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, call “prison gerrymandering,” in which more voters are allocated to a given district than are voting in it.
Brown said this practice “artificially (inflates) particular districts in Cranston” that house the Adult Correctional Institutions — the “major prison facility” complex in Rhode Island — due to the fact that many people who are incarcerated either can’t vote or vote absentee in other districts.
The state’s reapportionment commission, a group appointed by Democrat and Republican state house leaders to propose new district maps to the General Assembly using 2020 census data, has the power to recommend the end to this practice. The commission held a hearing Nov. 15 to solicit public input on this issue.
Black Lives Matter RI PAC Executive Director Harrison Tuttle said his organization — along with others such as Rhode Island Political Cooperative, Sunrise Providence, Rebuild Woonsocket, Providence Democratic Socialists of America and Direct Action for Rights and Equality — organized members of the community to give testimony by advertising the hearing online and educating people on the issue.
“We wanted to make sure that (the voices of people) that traditionally do not get heard at testimonies” were heard, he added.
Tuttle, who testified at the hearing himself, emphasized that the current method for counting incarcerated populations threatens equal access to government by “diluting and draining” the political representation of people who are incarcerated, many of whom “come from areas that are predominantly Black and brown.” He added that approximately 38% and 11% of the Adult Correctional Institutions’ population come from Providence and Pawtucket, respectively.
State Rep. Leonela Felix, who submitted written testimony for the hearing, told The Herald that the practice disadvantages her community of Pawtucket, which has “many constituents” who are incarcerated. According to data from the R.I. Department of Corrections, 11% of releases from Rhode Island prisons in 2019 reported returning to Pawtucket.
“Urban communities suffer the greatest with mass incarceration, and yet (prison gerrymandering gives) mostly white communities a bump with the bodies of Black and brown people from our communities,” she said.
The counting of people who are incarcerated is “personal” for Bret Jacob, a community member who testified at the hearing about his mother’s incarceration during his childhood. Jacob recently lost the State Senate District 3 democratic primary to Sam Zurier.
Jacob told The Herald that “practically no formal resources” were available to his mother when she left prison. “She really relied on the generosity and love of people in the community that we knew to help her transition into housing and help her coordinate things related to my school,” he said.
Noting that “the resources that communities need to thrive” are partially allocated on the basis of population, Jacob believes a change to the counting practice could ensure other people who are incarcerated have access to the assistance they may need upon re-entry, such as housing, workforce development and mental health counseling.
“It makes sense that if people are leaving behind lives that they were living before, they be counted in the place (where) their lives exist (and where) their communities exist — not where they’re being held,” he said.
Tuttle said the commission’s hearing was “extremely encouraging,” given that “the overwhelming majority of people who testified” were opposed to the current process for counting people who are incarcerated.
Among the few who testified in favor of the current method was R.I. GOP National Republican Committeeman Steve Frias ’94, a past candidate for R.I. House of Representatives in District 15 in Cranston.
Frias told The Herald that it is most fair to treat all citizens the same and thus count all according to their physical location at the time of the U.S. Census. He added that the state still counts university students attending schools in Providence in districts in the city, even though “there are thousands of kids who are from out of state” who often vote in their home states.
“If you’re going to start reallocating prison inmates ... then you’re going to have to look at other populations,” he said. “I don’t see why the prison population … needs to be treated differently than the 1.1 million people in the state for redistricting purposes,” he added.
Frias pushed back against the claim that Cranston is afforded extra representation, given that there are more registered voters in Cranston’s House District 15 than “two-thirds of other representative districts in Rhode Island,” including the district that represents the University.
He added that the process for determining the home districts of people who are incarcerated would likely warrant the use of information less reliable than census data. This is because prisons don’t have the “pre-incarceration addresses for” all those they house, “and the information they do have,” which is provided by people who are incarcerated, is sometimes the addresses of friends or relatives, he said.
Tuttle acknowledged that there are other considerations that complicate this process, such as how to account for people who are experiencing homelessness or have moved frequently prior to their incarceration. If the General Assembly decides to end the practice, he believes “the best avenue moving forward” is one where the state engages with activists, people who are incarcerated, those who were formerly incarcerated and other interested members of the community about how to implement this change in allocation.
The Reapportionment Commission must submit its final recommendations for electoral maps to the General Assembly by Jan.15.
Brown said it is hard to gauge how the members of the commission will respond to the community’s feedback.
“I think they realize that this is a significant and legitimate problem, but I don’t think they were showing their cards (during the hearing) as to what they will ultimately recommend,” he said.
If a change were to occur, Brown believes it would “give more meaning to the notion of ‘one person, one vote’ and provide an element of equality that’s missing” under the current practice.
Tuttle stressed the “urgency” of ending the practice now, given that redistricting only occurs every ten years.
“My hope is that the committee listens to public input and (acts in) the interests of our state,” he said, “which is ending prison gerrymandering.”