By: Sarah Crowe
In a lawsuit being touted as the “first of its kind”, Connecticut was hit with a federal lawsuit in late June 2018 with the aim of ending the practice of prison gerrymandering. According to the NAACP, prison gerrymandering is “the practice of counting prisoners in the towns where they are incarcerated, rather than at their pre-incarceration address, for the purposes of drawing state legislative district lines. The inmate population in Connecticut is a largely African American and Latino population, and these prisoners disproportionately come from urban centers. The prisons in Connecticut, however, are almost all in rural areas. Though many prisoners have lost their voting rights due to felony convictions, they are still counted as residents where they are incarcerated, inflating the votes of those who live in the rural areas near prisons, who are predominately white.
The Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School and the NAACP filed the lawsuit on June 28, 2018. It asks the court to declare the current maps unconstitutional, arguing that the district lines violate the “one person, one vote” equal protection mandate of the 14th Amendment. The complaint states, “permanent residents of the prison-gerrymandered district have more influence over local affairs and greater voting power than residents in other districts, particularly in the urban districts that many prisoners call home,” In a press conference shortly after filing the lawsuit, NAACP General Counsel Brad Barry declared, “We simply cannot accept that the state of Connecticut ships inmates to rural areas far from their homes, then uses the fiction of their supposed residence in those areas to dilute the electoral power of their home communities.” Derrick Johnson, the national NAACP president and CEO, went even farther, calling the practice “one aspect of a war of voter suppression targeting communities of color and reducing the integrity of the vote.”
Representatives for Governor Dannel P. Malloy said that they are reviewing the lawsuit, but this is not the first time the issue of prison gerrymandering has raised its head in Connecticut. The Connecticut General Assembly has tried and failed to change the law: “It considered legislation mandating that prisoners be counted at their pre-incarceration addresses for redistricting in its 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions. Lawmakers failed to enact legislation in each instance, leaving the 2011 Redistricting Plan unchanged.” Unfortunately, lawmakers seem reluctant to make changes to prison gerrymandering out of fear as to how it would affect redistricting – a strategy that values politics, not people.
Germano Kimbro was released from prison in 1990 and has been working on justice issues in the state ever since. He laments, “It is disheartening to see a society where there is an illusion of fairness and justice and democracy when we are being denied the very things that we are supposed to be about. When the rule makers begin to break the rules it makes you wonder what kind of society we are living in.” As long as people in prison are counted as residents there, they will likely not vote, as the issues being decided have nothing to do with their true home districts. Political agency should be counted where it truly resides, and the NAACP lawsuit is Connecticut’s best hope for ending prison gerrymandering.