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This month legislation was signed into law by Governor Paterson that would bar legislative districts from counting imprisoned individuals in state prisons as part of their population. New York became the second state, following Maryland, to end the practice.
For years New York activists called for the dismantling of prison-based gerrymandering (PBG) that allowed mostly rural counties to inflate their population numbers. This resulted in financial rewards for those communities that utilized it. Brent Staples of the NY Times colorfully described PBG when he once said, “There are many ways to hijack political power. One of them is to draw state or city legislative districts around large prisons — and pretend that the inmates are legitimate constituents.” The new change could dramatically change the state’s political dynamics.
PBG was an unfair practice that increased the populations of rural upstate districts with prisoners who were mostly from urban areas. According to Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, an organization that pioneered the challenge of PBG, when legislative districts are now redrawn in 2011, 26,000 prisoners will be counted as part of their home communities in the five boroughs of NYC, instead of the prisons they are housed in.
Although the state practiced PBG for many years, nothing could be done because of the powerful politics associated with incarceration — fueled by the war on drugs. If you connected the dots you would see that PBG was tied into the prison industrial complex, money raised from the local, state and federal levels. Since 1982, 33 prisons were built in rural upstate communities, giving politicians the incentive to turn these prisons into cash cows for their respective communities.
But the tight grip of the instilled corrupt political process of PBG was recently broken when a powerful coalition was created headed by Senator Eric T. Schneiderman. He became lead sponsor of the bill that challenged PBG and eventually became law. Schneiderman — who is currently running for New York Attorney General — has said that “Equal representation under the law benefits everyone. The practice of counting people where they are incarcerated undermines the fundamental principle of ‘one person, one vote’ — it’s undemocratic and reflects a broken system. This legislation is as simple as it is fair: it requires that legislative districts at every level of government contain an equal numbers of residents.”
According to research done by the Prison Policy Initiative in 2002 seven New York State Senate districts depend on prison-based gerrymandering to maintain their existence. One of the districts that will be affected is Republican Senator Betty Little’s 46th District. Little was a very vocal opponent of prison-gerrymandering reform legislation. It is not surprising — without her prison constituency (about 13,000 individuals in 12 prisons), her district would be unconstitutional. She knew that if reform happened, districts would merge and politicians like her would likely lose their jobs.
Maybe this was the reason why Senator Dale Volker (R. 59th District) recently announced his retirement after 35 years. He was one of the politicians who would be affected by the changes in the prison-based gerrymandering laws. For many years Volker was one of the toughest opponents of Rockefeller Drug Law reform. He swore up and down if the Rock laws were ever reformed the flood gates of hell would open. I challenged him about the influence of the many prisons in his district about 13 years ago on CNBC’s Charles Grodin Show. Volker became enraged when I told him the reason he supported the Rockefeller Drug Laws was because the non-violent prisoners housed in those prisons fed his community and allowed him to stay in power.
Hopefully the axing of prison-gerrymandering will result in the reduction of the reliance on the prison industrial complex in upstate New York. We need to re-think our system of justice, where prisoners become a significant commodity for politicians to use as tools to manipulate and control the political process. When we do so we will be able to put our destiny in our own hands once again.
ANTHONY PAPA is the Manager of Media Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance