OLYMPIA, Wash. – The recent release of detailed Census data means states can begin drawing up new voting maps. In Washington state, a new law will change the way prison populations are counted.
The measure relocates people who are incarcerated away from the places where they’re imprisoned back to their home addresses.
Wanda Bertram, communication strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative, said it’s inappropriate to count incarcerated people as residents of their prison cells.
“For one thing because they don’t consider themselves to be members of the community almost all the time,” said Bertram. “And most people in prison within a few years are actually going to leave the district, either to be transferred to a different prison or to go back to their own hometowns. ”
The Washington state measure ending what some call “prison gerrymandering” passed in 2019.
Bertram noted that the law applies only when the state is drawing state district lines, not to local governments such as cities and school boards when they’re drawing lines.
The end of prison gerrymandering will affect a number of communities, such as Monroe which is about 30 miles outside of Seattle and home to the Monroe Correctional Complex. Bertram said the prison population there is about 12% of the overall population.
In Connell, a town in the southeast part of the state near Kennewick, the share is even greater at about 44% of the population. But Bertram said counting these folks as part of these communities distorts the map.
“At the level of society overall,” said Bertram, “we don’t want this transference of political power away from the communities most impacted by mass incarceration and towards the communities where prisons happen to be located.”
She said prison gerrymandering shows one way mass incarceration has impacts beyond the people in prison.
Bertram noted that some neighborhoods – especially those home to people of color – are policed at higher rates, and when people who are incarcerated are not counted as part of those communities, it dilutes their political power.
“It actually holds back reform,” said Bertram. “It eats away at the momentum for criminal justice reform. So this has real impacts on the law, has impacts on how resources are allocated, and I think that states and counties really can’t fix this soon enough.”
Washington is among 11 states that have ended prison gerrymandering.
Featured photo: There are more than 2,000 people incarcerated in the Monroe Correctional Complex, located in a small southeast Washington town. (SounderBruce/Wikimedia Commons)