My Vote Was Taken Away From My Community and Given To a District Where I Was Incarcerated
Prison-based gerrymandering takes political power away from Black and Latinx communities—power that could be used to push for more funding for schools, social services, infrastructure, and other important reforms.
This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis on important issues and actors in the criminal legal system.
I was released from prison two years ago, and I’m a permanent resident of the Philadelphia metropolitan area. But to this day, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives improperly counts me as a resident of SCI Greene—located in Franklin—because I was held there at the time of the 2010 census.
This is prison-based gerrymandering: the practice of miscounting people as residents of the communities in which they are incarcerated, rather than those they consider home and will return to after incarceration. It falsely bolsters the power of rural white areas, effectively using incarcerated people as voiceless tools in an unfair political system.
In Pennsylvania, like many places in the country, Black and Latinx people make up the majority of the incarcerated population, for reasons both economic and having to do with our unjust political and criminal legal system. Once convicted, prisoners are generally shuttled to prison facilities in more rural areas of the state, often far from their homes.
On Feb. 29, 1991, I was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a crime that occurred when I was 16. For 27 years, I was incarcerated at various locations in the commonwealth, including SCI Huntingdon in central Pennsylvania, which had a prison administration that I would estimate was 90 percent white. The prison population is 66 percent nonwhite, according to the most recent state Department of Corrections data. When I was there, the majority of prisoners were from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
My experience in prison bordered on combat. Practically every exchange between guards and prisoners was mutually hostile. The lives of prisoners, who were not from the communities the administration was from, did not matter to the administration. Because the overwhelming majority of the prisoners would not be returning to central Pennsylvania when we were released, our rehabilitation wasn’t a priority, as we wouldn’t potentially reoffend in their communities.
The communities that are most victimized by prison-based gerrymandering are urban communities of color. Politicians who represent the rural, white districts where prisons are located rarely, if ever, consider the incarcerated people in their districts to be a part of their constituency. There are no visits to local jails to check on conditions or hear the concerns of the incarcerated. In many of these districts, the prevailing conservative base consistently supports policies that make the lives of incarcerated people and people of color in general more difficult.
Some have pointed out that Pennsylvania’s treatment of incarcerated people is reminiscent of the 1787 Three-Fifths Compromise, which stated that enslaved African Americans were to be counted as part of the population for legislative representation purposes. It still upheld the institution of slavery and blocked any chance at political representation—to say nothing of voting—for those same enslaved people. They were “counted” only to increase the political power of the regime that enslaved them.
Prison-based gerrymandering, similarly, relies on the imprisonment of Black and Latinx people to maintain the political and representational power of rural communities that are predominantly white. In that and this instance, people of color are merely bodies used to bolster voting power in communities that are often hostile to their rights and needs as human beings.
Last week, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the NAACP filed a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s system of prison-based gerrymandering on my behalf and others’. They and other advocates are also calling for the state to make a simple correction to census data when it draws its legislative maps, so that incarcerated people are counted at their last known address, rather than in the districts where they are imprisoned. For decades, people directly impacted by incarceration in Pennsylvania have challenged this system of prison-gerrymandering through pro se (self-represented) litigation and other actions, recognizing that the state Constitution fundamentally guarantees citizens equal representation in our political system, whether incarcerated or not.
Prison-based gerrymandering is but one aspect of how mass incarceration systematically oppresses Black and Latinx communities—one that affects the lives of thousands, not just those who are or have been incarcerated. The majority of prisoners are struggling day to day just to survive and make it out of the teeth of a repressive and hostile system. They don’t have the power to fight the systems that use them for political gain. It is the responsibility of those of us on the outside to help return their voices to them and change the systems that contribute to their continued oppression.
This work is so important to me because of my personal connection and experiences. On Feb. 20, 2018, I was released on parole after a resentencing hearing pursuant to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles are an unconstitutional form of cruel and unusual punishment. It is my own community that would have most benefited had I and other prisoners been counted in our home districts. Perhaps our communities would have gained the political power necessary to push for more funding for schools, social services, infrastructure, and other important reforms.
If I could have chosen someone to financially benefit from my incarceration, I would have preferred to give back in some way to the community I harmed. It was this community that I and others who offended owe a debt to. Not the rural communities that we are incarcerated in, particularly when they use the political power garnered from our presence to create further deficits in the places we call home.
Robert Saleem Holbrook is a community organizer and the director of community organizing for the Abolitionist Law Center in Philadelphia.