The explosion of prison populations since the 1980s had profound effects on the political geography of the United States. One impact stems from the Census Bureau’s policy of counting incarcerated people as residents of their jail cell, rather than their home community. The result is ‘prison gerrymandering’ which inflates voting strength of constituents in the prison district, deflates the voting strength of constituents in other districts, and creates ‘ghost constituent’ inmates with no accountable political representation.
The proposed project is designed to visualize and quantify impacts of prison gerrymandering. The analyses will explore gerrymandered state congressional districts, identify impacted voters, and quantify the degree of inflated or deflated voting strength. While not possible to allocate prisons to their home communities, it is possible to quantify the vote strength of ‘ghost constituents’ at the national scale. The latter will call attention to lack of data available for these types of analyses.
This project relies on free and open data. The US Census Bureau provides demographic data, district shapefiles, and prison locations at the Census block level. The Prison Policy Institute provides prisoner demographic data, and shapefiles with prison locations and details on the over 6,000 detention centers in the United States.
Although expectations are defined below, we leave room for the creativity inherent in spatial analyses and invite the fellow will bolster these products with additional ideas.
Internally, project results will be used to inform our policy, organizing and educational outreach, and litigation strategies around prison gerrymandering. This is particularly critical right now as we are in the run-up to the 2020 Census and redistricting, during which time the bulk of our work in this arena is most effective.
Externally, we’ll publish the report as part of our body of research to share with the public and educate on the topic. The interactive web-based map will be bundled with the report for these purposes but is intended for visitors who aren’t inclined to read the full report. We’ll use statistics and maps generated from the report as social media fodder to spotlight the full project and report, and generate further dialogue around the issue.
The students for the Summer 2019 Azavea Summer of Maps have been announced. Their fellowship will begin shortly.