How prisons inflate white voting power in downstate Illinois

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Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in one of its most anticipated cases, Gill v. Whitford. The subject of the case – gerrymandering. A practice of manipulating district boundaries to control political results, gerrymandering has been a part of American electoral politics since the early 1800s. The practice inflates the votes of some citizens at the expense of others.

News reports and analyses focused on the potential swing vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Few, however, are talking about another type of gerrymandering that makes some votes count far more than others. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, prison gerrymandering highlights the ways that an overgrown prison system undermines democracy.

Prison gerrymandering counts incarcerated populations as residents of the often rural localities in which they are confined. These inflated population counts are then used as a basis for creating electoral maps.

The Supreme Court justices are considering the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting in Gill v. Whitford. Leaders of the state legislature redrew the electoral map in secret; the bill passed along partisan lines. The effects were immediate, shaping the outcome of the 2012 elections. Although the state’s Republican Party received only 49 percent of the statewide vote, it gained 60 percent of the state Assembly’s seats.

So, how is this related to prison gerrymandering?

According to The Sentencing Project, the nation’s prison population has grown 500 percent over the past four decades. Largely because of institutional discrimination, like the “War on Drugs” waged in “inner-cities” of America, the incarcerated are disproportionately blacks and Latinos from urban spaces. However, the prisons built to accommodate the growth in incarceration have most often been built in rural spaces, otherwise predominantly white and conservative. The boom of mass incarceration, as prison policy analyst Tracy Huling argues, created demand for a boom in rural prison construction.

The recent report we co-authored with colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy documents the broad reach of prison gerrymandering in Illinois and its clear violation of democratic principles and racial justice.

In Illinois, about 90 percent of the prison population of 50,000 is incarcerated outside of Cook County, even though Cook County accounts for three out of every five prisoners. This spatial mismatch is a consequence of political decisions about prison growth. All of the state’s prisons built after 1941 are located at least 100 miles from Chicago, and the average distance between Chicago and a state prison is more than 200 miles.

Where are prison populations in Illinois concentrated? These counties have proportional prison populations that are at least 10 times the state average.

Illinois prison population map

Data: Census 2010

This is the spatial story of Chicago and Illinois. And this story is a racial one as well. While seven out of 10 incarcerated by the state identify as black or Latinx, about 95 percent of the prison population is located in counties that are overwhelmingly white. Of the 10 counties with the highest percentage of prison residents, for example, eight of them had general populations that were at least 85 percent white.

When lawmakers use census counts like these to draw electoral districts without regard for prison gerrymandering, the effects are clear. White votes in downstate Illinois are inflated at the disproportionate expense of folks of color in the Chicago area.

These political decisions don’t just punish individual voters convicted of crime. They punish whole communities, even those innocent of any wrongdoing. Crime victims who disproportionately reside in urban areas are more likely to have their collective political power deflated from diminished voting blocs as a result of prison gerrymandering — adding not only insult to injury but injury to injury.

There’s a simple solution to the problem of prison gerrymandering: Count inmates as residents of their home communities, not their prison cells. But this methodological flaw is unlikely to be corrected prior to the 2020 Census. And no other federal action can be expected at the current political moment. Therefore, the onus is on state and local governments to make change.

In Illinois, there is reason to be hopeful. On Jan. 11, 2017, State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford introduced House Bill 205 — otherwise known as the “No Representation Without Population Act.” It calls for the Illinois Department of Corrections to collect data on inmates’ place of legal residence outside their prison cells, so that population counts and redistricting efforts can be adjusted accordingly.

Our hope is that the legislature adopts this bill or one just like it. The cornerstone of the democratic governance, “one person, one vote,” very well depends on it.

The 10 counties with the highest percentage of incarcerated populations and their racial profile:

Data: Census 2010