Ending Prison Gerrymandering


Taking on prison gerrymandering, formerly incarcerated voters and the NAACP-PA file an amicus brief supporting PA state house and senate maps

March 11, 2022 – Formerly incarcerated Pennsylvania voters and the NAACP – Pennsylvania State Conference have filed an amicus brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, supporting the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC)’s decision to take a major step towards ending the practice of “prison gerrymandering” in their 2022 Pennsylvania state House and Senate redistricting plans. By using address data counting nearly 30,000 incarcerated Pennsylvanians in their homes, rather than the addresses of their prison cells, the LRC has taken a significant step towards the fair representation of Pennsylvania communities, amici argue.

“For too long prison gerrymandering has distorted political representation in Pennsylvania, shifting power from urban and predominantly Black and Latino communities to rural and white communities where prisons are located,” the brief reads. “Amici submit this brief in support of the Final [LRC Legislative Redistricting] Plan, which takes a major step toward ending prison gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.”

The amici are represented by the Public Interest Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and pro bono co-counsel from Hogan Lovells.

Read the brief here.

The LRC’s decision to count prisoners at their home addresses is being challenged by Pennsylvania House of Representatives Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff. Leader Benninghoff is also challenging the new maps’ treatment of State House incumbents. Amici argue that the protection of incumbent politicians cannot outweigh considerations, such as equal population of districts, meant to ensure fair districts for voters.

“Prison-based gerrymandering is an affront to one of the bedrock principles of not only American democracy but democracies all over the world,” said President of the Pennsylvania State NAACP Blanding Watson. “Wherever a person lives, and whatever the color of their skin, everyone’s vote should count the same. That’s simply not the case in Pennsylvania today, and it is long past time we put an end to this ugly and anachronistic practice.”

“For too long prison gerrymandering has distorted political representation in Pennsylvania, shifting power from urban and predominantly Black and Latino communities to rural and white communities where prisons are located.”

John Thompson, one of the Pennsylvania voters filing today’s brief, is a lifelong Philadelphian who works for the Abolition Law Center, advocating for an end to solitary confinement, an end to death by incarnation, and the release of aging and geriatric people who are imprisoned. He spent 24 years incarcerated in state prisons, most recently SCI Smithfield, and he believes that voting district lines should ensure that underrepresented communities have the chance to elect representatives of their choice.

Cynthia Alvarado, also a lifelong Philadelphian, was incarcerated in Lycoming County’s SCI Muncy for 12 years. As a young person from a deeply impoverished section of Philadelphia, she had felt politically disempowered and had not voted or engaged in politics for most of her life. During her time in prison, she had a political awakening, and she is now an active advocate for criminal justice reform, and excited to vote for the first time in 2022. Alvarado is concerned that prison gerrymandering—by counting prisoners as residents of communities to which they typically have no ties, far from home—discourages civic involvement.

“Our clients live, work and volunteer in the communities that are hit hard by the prison gerrymandering status quo that the LRC has rightly changed,” said Ben Geffen, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “They have seen first-hand how many formerly incarcerated people in Black and Latino communities, even after regaining the right to vote and returning home, are discouraged from participating in democracy because they do not believe their communities are fairly represented. Pennsylvania must take steps to change this—and it starts with upholding fairer legislative districts.”

The Public Interest Law Center has advocated for an end to prison gerrymandering in Pennsylvania for several years, filing a public comment with the U.S. Census Bureau in 2016 and continuing to meet with state officials and work to educate the public since then.

In their brief, amici write that the population distortion caused by prison gerrymandering is “at odds with basic fairness principals, including the constitutional mandate of ‘one person, one vote.’” In 2018, two researchers at Villanova University published a peer-reviewed study, finding that the counting imprisoned Pennsylvanians in their cells when drawing legislative district lines in 2012 inflated the political power of the average white Pennsylvanian, while diluting the political power of the average Black or Latino Pennsylvanian.

If the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds LRC’s final legislative redistricting plan, Pennsylvania would join 11 other states in using data that counts incarcerated residents at their home address.

Under the former state house map, there were 10 districts in which more than 5% of the population were disenfranchised inmates in state prison facilities. Philadelphia alone gains more than 7,000 residents under the LRC’s new redistricting plan, thanks to the reassignment of addresses from state correctional institutions to home communities.

In their brief, amici also take the position that protecting incumbent legislators can only be, at most, a “discretionary” consideration when drawing legislative district lines—and it cannot take precedence over more important considerations, such as adjusting for changes in state population.

Since 2012, Pennsylvanian’s population has shifted from the center of the Commonwealth—areas predominated by districts that typically elect Republican legislators—to the southeast, a region in which most districts tend to elect Democratic legislators. The majority of state legislative districts that voted for former President Trump in 2020 now, according to the U.S. Census data used for this year’s legislative redistricting plan, have too few people to form a district. The opposite is true for most legislative districts that voted for President Biden, which now have too many people to form a district.

Because of these population trends, a reapportionment plan based on 2020 Census data, amici write, would need to increase the geographic area of most Republican districts and shrink the area of most Democratic ones—making it more likely that Republican incumbents will be paired with other incumbent legislators.