By DANIEL KITTREDGE Should inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions be counted as residents of Cranston in the drawing of new legislative district maps? That practice, which critics call "prison gerrymandering," was the focus of a special State
Should inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions be counted as residents of Cranston in the drawing of new legislative district maps?
That practice, which critics call “prison gerrymandering,” was the focus of a special State House hearing Monday night.
Dozens of Rhode Islanders, including several prominent Cranstonians, offered testimony before the Special Commission on Reapportionment, some defending the current way of counting inmates and others calling for reform as a moral imperative.
The issue of how prisoners are counted for redistricting purposes has been an increasing focus nationally in recent years. Presently, the U.S. Census Bureau considers inmates to be residents of the community in which they physically reside when the “snapshot” of the nation’s population is taken – a date which, for the 2020 Census, occurred in April of last year.
The Special Commission on Reapportionment – which is charged with forwarding a plan for new House and Senate maps based on the latest Census results to the General Assembly just weeks from now – set Monday’s special meeting based on requests for additional discussion of possible reform in Rhode Island.
The meeting included a presentation from Kimball Brace of Election Data Services, a consultant the state has long employed for its redistricting process.
Mayor Ken Hopkins, the first person to address the commission during public comment, perhaps made the most waves with his defense of the current practice.
At the center of his argument was the number of Cranston Police and Fire service calls to the ACI. He said those calls numbered about 100 last year in the case of police, who provide support for Rhode Island State Police at the state’s sole prison facility, and total nearly 300 annually for fire personnel.
“This nation fought a revolution over no taxation without representation. To require Cranston taxpayers to pay taxes to provide local services to ACI inmates, and then to give other municipalities the power to represent these inmates at the General Assembly, goes against this core principle,” the mayor said.
He later added: “If ACI inmates are to be considered residents of their municipalities for purposes of representation in the General Assembly, then the city of Cranston will need to consider charging their municipalities for the services Cranston provides these apparently non-Cranston residents at the ACI.”
Following the mayor’s remarks, former Sen. Harold Metts, a member of the commission, noted that the city receives payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, funding from the state because it is the prison’s home community.
Steven Frias, Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman and a former candidate for House District 15 in Cranston, told commission members that altering the way ACI inmates are counted for the purpose of drawing legislative maps would risk opening a far more disruptive “can of worms.” Were college students to be similarly reapportioned to their home communities for population counts, he said, communities such as Providence, South Kingstown, Smithfield, Bristol and Newport could see significant impacts in their representation.
“It’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be complex, and you will get it wrong sometimes if you do it too quickly,” he said, later adding: “You have the authority of following the U.S. Census. It’s not Census plus adjustment.”
Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, whose District 15 includes a portion of the ACI complex, echoed Frias’s concerns about a change in inmate counting potentially leading to more disruptive changes in how college students, nursing home residents and military personnel are counted. She also pointed to voter engagement in her district, which she said was higher than several districts in Providence despite its overall population including roughly one-third of inmates.
Fenton-Fung also reprised Hopkins’s argument regarding the services Cranston’s emergency personnel provide to the ACI complex.
“That is a disproportionate burden on the Cranston taxpayers, and I want that to be very clear,” she said.
Other Cranstonians offered a sharply different take on the issue.
Jim Vincent, president of the NAACP Providence branch and a Cranston homeowner for more than two decades, framed the issue as one of social justices. Advocates for reform argue that the counting of prisoners as Cranston residents dilutes the representation of the communities they come from – particularly urban core cities such as Providence and Pawtucket, which have large minority populations.
“I love Cranston, but one thing I love more than Cranston is justice,” Vincent said. “And prison gerrymandering is wrong. It’s injustice.”
Addressing the commission, he added: “You have the opportunity … to weigh in, in terms of justice, to do the right thing … Make a statement. Be bold.”
Vincent also rejected the idea of Cranston charging other municipalities for ACI inmate services as “ludicrous.”
Harrison Tuttle, a Cranston resident and announced 2022 Rhode Island Political Cooperative candidate who serves as executive director BLM RI PAC, called prison gerrymandering a “glaring problem that exacerbates a disparity in representation for Black and Brown communities” and “robs [inmates] and their neighborhoods of rightful representation.” He also said it is an example of “continuing systemic racism that affects all levels of electoral politics.”
Cranston Ward 3 City Councilman John Donegan and state Rep. Brandon Potter of District 16 were among those who submitted written testimony to the commission ahead of Monday’s hearing.
Donegan’s testimony references a prior court case the city faced over its use of the ACI population in drawing new ward maps based on the Census every 10 years. The ACLU of Rhode Island had challenged the maps adopted after the 2010 Census on the grounds that including the prison population in Ward 6, where the prison sits, served to unconstitutionally dilute the effective representation of residents in other wards. The ACLU was initially successful in U.S. District Court, but the U.S. Court of Appeals subsequently sided with the city.
“The residents of the City of Cranston are constitutionally entitled to equal and proportional representation on the Cranston City Council and Cranston School Committee,” Donegan’s testimony reads. “The practice of prison-based gerrymandering undermines our democratic principle of equal representation by giving every 3 residents of Ward 6 the same representation and influence over city affairs as 4 residents in the other Wards. The practice is antithetical to our democratic principles and should be stopped.”
Hopkins, during his testimony Monday, cited the U.S. Court of Appeals finding that the city’s practice of counting ACI inmates in Cranston’s population “easily passes constitutional muster.”
Donegan also addressed Hopkins’s remarks regarding the possibility of charging other communities for services to ACI inmates if the current counting method is changed.
“In Cranston, we enjoy tremendous services from our respected Cranston Fire and Cranston Police Departments, respectively. However, our Fire and Police Departments also provide mutual aid to neighboring communities such as Warwick, West Warwick, and Providence. Should residents in those communities be counted in Cranston because they receive services from our municipal departments?”
During his presentation to the commission at the outset of the meeting, Brace shared information regarding the history of prison inmate Census counting in Rhode Island, how the practice has been addressed in other states, and work his firm has done on the issue in Rhode Island.
Three states – Delaware, Maryland and New York – addressed the issue following the 2010 Census, Brace said, while California followed in 2012. Several other states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, are exploring the issue for the current round of redistricting.
Historically, Brace said, Rhode Island has made moves to limit the impact of the ACI’s population on any single legislative district. In 1990, he said, the prison’s population made up roughly 40 percent of what was then House District 25’s overall population. Starting in 2000, changes were made to disperse that figure among different districts. Today, the ACI’s population is included in House districts 15 and 20, as well as Senate districts 27 and 31. Cranston and Warwick are the communities included in those districts.
“It was a way to make sure we were not putting all the eggs in one basket,” Brace said.
One of the evening’s most notable moments came when Brace revealed his firm has entered a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, with the ACI in order to gain access to data regarding prisoners’ names, most recent addresses, ages, race and dates of birth. He said that information has been used to help “geo-code” members of the prison population – in other words, to identify which community they would be associated with were the state to alter its method of counting inmates for redistricting.
Brace said 691 inmates, or roughly 26 percent, of the ACI’s population could not be geo-coded for various reasons. Of the rest, 737, or just over 38 percent, were coded to Providence, followed by Pawtucket with 229 inmates, or nearly 12 percent, and Woonsocket with 156 inmates, or roughly 8 percent.
A total of 146 inmates, or 7.6 percent, were coded to Cranston. No other community had more than 5 percent of inmates.
In terms of the practical impact of counting prisoners in their home communities rather than in Cranston, Brace said he plans to create a graphic showing the effects on a by-district basis. He said, those that “it’s really going to impact two or three districts at most” – although those districts would be those currently covering the ACI.
“They’re going to have to get bigger because the population you thought was there has been distributed, and you’ve got to find it someplace,” he said.
How the commission will fall on the issue remains unclear. There was some discussion over whether recommending a change in the ACI population counting is even within the body’s purview, given that the law explicitly calls for redistricting to be based on the Census results. Proponents said while it will be up to the General Assembly to enact legislation to formalize any change, the commission ought to recommend reform.
Metts, who sought legislative action on prison gerrymanding during his time in the General Assembly, said he was pleased to have the issue in the spotlight.
“I’m glad that it’s finally getting the attention that it deserves,” he said, :because in the past, it was ignored.”
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