Second Grader Tests Limits of Rhode Island’s Prison-based Gerrymandering Policy
A second grade girl is putting Rhode Island’s prison-based gerrymandering policy to the test. As reported by this local TV news story, the child has requested that she be allowed to stay on with her classmates at her elementary school in Cranston, where her father is incarcerated, rather than transferring to an elementary school in Providence, where she recently moved with her mother. Advocates for the 9-year-old girl argue that since Cranston considers inmates to be residents at Census time, the city should be prepared to afford them access to services for residents — such as access to the public schools for their children. It’s funny to watch Cranston’s flustered mayor, Allan Fung, towards the end of the local news story: “This individual is not a taxpayer to the city of Cranston! He’s in a situation where he’s incarcerated!” The story also interviews an organizer with Direct Action for Rights and Equality, a Rhode Island organization that advocates for low-income communities of color.
This is a revealing test case, but it’s also a test case that could really only happen in Rhode Island. Cranston is a few minutes’ drive from Providence. In most states, of course, the incarcerated father would more likely be in a prison hours away from his daughter. But in states across the country, local politicians prefer to count prisoners as residents of their districts so they can attract population-based funding and boost their numbers for legislative redistricting, even though prisoners usually can’t vote, aren’t taxpayers, and aren’t considered local residents for just about any other purpose. For instance, prisoners who attempt to petition the local courts for a divorce are frequently rejected and instructed instead to file in their home county. Another revealing inconsistency is that prisoners incarcerated out-of-state generally aren’t considered residents of the state where they are incarcerated by the federal courts when determining personal jurisdiction. In short, nowhere in our governmental structure are prisoners really considered “residents” of the locality where their prison is located, except when it comes time for redistricting. This year legislation has been proposed in several states — including Rhode Island — to end this practice; you can track the issue at the Prisoners of the Census blog.