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Petition Calls for an End to Prison Gerrymandering in PA

by Emily Scott, Keystone State News Connection

Petition Calls for an End to Prison Gerrymandering in PA

Pennsylvania should get some 2020 Census data this summer, to be used in the redistricting process. But some groups want the state to put an end to what’s known as prison gerrymandering

It’s the policy of counting people in prison as residents where they’re incarcerated, rather than where they’d otherwise be living.

A petition launched on Tuesday asks the panel in charge of redrawing the districts – the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, or LRC – to count the 37-thousand people behind bars based on where they’re from.

Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, said prison gerrymandering is a racial justice issue.

“Because what you have is prisoners who are primarily from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chester, who are making up the bulk or disproportionate number of the state prison population in Pennsylvania,” said Holbrook. “And these rural, white counties benefit from predominantly Black and Brown areas, from them being counted as residents in these prisons in these rural communities.”

In a May LRC meeting, PA House Minority Leader Rep. Joanna McClinton – D-Philadelphia – who sits on the five-member panel, called on her colleagues to commit to stopping prison gerrymandering.

Carol Kuniholm, chair of the group Fair Districts PA, said prison gerrymandering goes against state election law, which says individuals in “penal institutions” should not be considered a resident of the institution’s election district.

“So, our belief is, if you can’t vote in the place you are incarcerated, you shouldn’t be counted in the place where you’re incarcerated,” said Kuniholm. “That you should be counted at your last known address.”

Kuniholm said she hopes the LRC addresses prison gerrymandering at its next meeting. The commission has pledged to host public hearings this summer ahead of the mapmaking process.