Counting Votes

Prison-based Gerrymandering in Cranston, RI

by Megan Hauptman

Illustration by Maya Sorabjee

published March 7, 2014

Cranston’s Ward 6 has either 10,209 or 13,300 constituents, depending on how you’re counting heads. About 10,000 of its residents live in brick and vinyl-sided houses on suburban streets and cul-de-sacs. But over 3,000 of Ward 6’s residents live on Howard Avenue, in the same cluster of cement and brick behemoths surrounded by barbed wire: the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute (ACI). The complex is the state’s only public prison system, and includes seven facilities, ranging from Intake to Maximum Security. The men and women incarcerated at the ACI come from all over the state. They cannot use the local library, go to public school, or vote for their elected officials. But their bodies are counted in Cranston’s census, and pad Ward 6’s voting base, giving these Cranston residents’ votes more weight than votes from any other city ward. In the City Council, Ward 6’s 10,000 non-incarcerated residents are given the same representation as the 13,000 residents in Wards 1-5. This reduces the voting power of residents in Wards 1-5 to three-fourths of one vote in Ward 6. On a state level, this also inflates Cranston’s population, giving the city more representatives in the state Congress and makes it eligible to receive more state funding.

     On February 19, the Rhode Island ACLU—supported by Demos and the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), national non-profit advocacy groups—sued the City of Cranston over their 2012 redistricting plan that continues to count inmates at the ACI as part of Ward 6’s population. The lawsuit, Davidson v. Cranston, alleges that the redistricting plan violates the equal representation clause of the 14th Amendment—one person, one vote—by diluting the voting power of Cranston residents outside of Ward 6.


Prison-based gerrymandering—districting prisoners as residents of the area where they are imprisoned—is not a problem unique to Rhode Island. In fact, it’s the default for states across the country; counting prisoners at the prison’s address goes back to the original Census in 1790. In the first major study done on the effects of prison-based gerrymandering, released in 2004, Peter Wagner, now director of PPI, called the practice “an outdated concept that predates both modern uses of Census data and high incarceration.” Since then, PPI has worked extensively with community organizers and state legislators all over the US to address this issue; in the past three years some states have taken measures to have prisoners counted as residents of their home addresses, starting with Maryland in 2010. Though Maryland, New York, and Delaware have passed state-wide laws to change the way prisoners are counted in the census, many efforts to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering have occurred at a local level: over 200 cities and counties across the country have chosen to change the way they district their incarcerated residents.

     The issue first came to light in Rhode Island in 2010, after Bruce Reilly, an organizer with Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) who formerly served over a decade in the ACI, heard a talk Wagner gave at Brown University about prison-based gerrymandering in New York. Reilly looked at the census and districting maps for Cranston and realized that the entire population of the prison was drawn into one Senate district and split between two House districts, creating substantial artificial representation in the state congress. He contacted Wagner and PPI, who, along with the ACLU and Common Cause RI, helped DARE contact state politicians and start publicizing this issue.

     In March 2010, the RI House Judiciary Committee considered a bill that would count incarcerated Rhode Islanders as residents of their prior addresses for the census. During the hearing for the 2010 bill, several state representatives testified that counting prisoners as residents of Cranston also inflated the city’s population, allowing more state and federal resources to be directed into that district. But Cranston’s Mayor Allan Fung opposed the move to count prisoners as residents of their previous homes. “Those that are incarcerated at the ACI, particularly those that are here for a long sentence, have an impact on the services that we provide,” Fung told the Judiciary Committee. “Our police, fire, and rescue make multiple runs to the prison [...] I cannot support a proposal that might disadvantage Cranston’s ability to get sorely needed resources.”

     Fung’s counterpoint—that prisoners cost local taxpayers—is valid. In 2010, the average cost to incarcerate someone for a year in Rhode Island was $49,133; overall state jail and prison spending that year was $172.1 million. Prison buildings, like other government facilities, are exempt from property taxes. But the prison also operates its own hospital and has an extensive security apparatus in the form of hundreds of correctional officers. The operational budget for these services come from state and federal funds, not from Cranston’s coffers.

     And Fung has publicly dismissed the idea that prisoners should be able to make use of Cranston’s other publicly funded resources. When second grader Joline Correa—the daughter of an inmate in the ACI—petitioned to stay at her elementary school in Cranston rather than switch to an elementary school in Providence, where she had moved to live with her mother, Fung had a different take on what residency means. “[Joline’s father] is not a taxpayer to the city of Cranston, he’s in a situation where he’s incarcerated,” Fung told a local TV station in March of 2010. Fung’s vacillation between designating prisoners as resource-using citizens and prisoners as objects of the state is common among politicians trying to use this disenfranchised population to serve their own interests. Incarcerated men and women have no vote in the society that locks them up, but their bodies are valuable political commodities.


Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow incarcerated residents to vote from prison. In some states, anyone convicted of a felony is indefinitely barred from voting, even after they’ve served the full term of their sentence. Other states restrict only the currently incarcerated from voting, while some withhold voting rights from parolees and probationers as well.

     In 2006, a referendum in Rhode Island extended voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, even those released on parole; voter registration forms are now provided as part of the Department of Corrections’ discharge planning process. But for the length of their stay in the ACI, prisoners can’t cast ballots.

     States are justified in restricting the voting rights of felons and ex-felons under Section 2 of the 14th Amendment—the same section Davidson v. Cranston is predicated on—which asserts that states cannot deny any eligible citizens the right to vote, except “for participation in rebellion, or other crime.” Section 2 was originally included after the Civil War to prevent southern states from counting their newly freed black populations for representation while continuing to deny them political voice. But the except-for-crime clause ultimately had a disenfranchising effect. In the wake of abolition, the criminal justice system and aggressive policing of black bodies became mechanisms used to control former slaves; the proportion of black citizens in both southern and northern prisons grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th century. Along with losing their bodily autonomy and often being forced to work on prison plantations or chain gangs, those who were locked up also lost their badge of citizenship: the right to vote. The 14th Amendment made it unconstitutional to deny citizens the franchise based on their skin color, but Section 2 reasserted the validity of the Greco-Roman concept of civic death—that those who transgress societal norms or laws deserve to be excluded from the democratic process. Prisons exclude and hide bodies physically while felon disenfranchisement denies individuals the ability to weigh in on the system that has placed them there. Making people into criminals invalidates their personhood and nullifies them as citizens.

     In the 47 states that still allow incarcerated men and women to be counted as residents of the prison district, incarcerated bodies often give voting strength to voters who have diametrically different backgrounds and political goals. A majority of the country’s prisons are located in rural, conservative, and predominantly white counties—often districts that voted in support of the War on Drugs that has funded massive prison expansion over the past 40 years. In New York, which outlawed the practice of prison-based gerrymandering in 2011, activists highlighted the fact that predominately black and Latino prisoners from New York City were inflating the voting power of conservative white voters in rural upstate New York. The voting clout of these “phantom voters” has a historical analogue in the 3/5ths clause of the US Constitution—slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of congressional apportionment—which artificially boosted the South’s national political representation and power, allowing Southern legislators to defend the legality of keeping these slave bodies under their control.

     Most any conversation about mass incarceration, or the prison-industrial complex—buzzwords that have proliferated in politics and media in recent years—does and should address the still-racialized nature of policing, prisons, and punishment in America. While explicit codification of race into our laws is a thing of the past, the ostensibly color blind nature of our current day police, courts, and prison system can mask the ways that racial bias still influences who is seen as a criminal, how they are sentenced, and whose voices and votes count. To bring this back to Rhode Island: African Americans make up 7.3 percent of the state’s population, but 28.9 percent of the people in its prison system.


Rhode Island is a small state with small cities. Cranston is a ten-minute drive from downtown Providence; even so, there are demographic and political shifts crossing from one city to the next. Almost half of the men and women incarcerated in the ACI come from Providence and Pawtucket, though the highest concentration is from the square-mile city of Central Falls. Providence and Central Falls are both majority-minority cities with Democratic mayors. Central Falls is the state’s smallest and poorest city, with a 60 percent Latino population. Providence’s median household income is $38,243—almost $20,000 lower than the state average. In contrast, Cranston’s median household income is $58,772, and the city’s population is 81.9 percent white. Mayor Allan Fung is a Republican in a solidly Democratic state; Michael Favicchio, the councilman of the contested Ward 6, is also a Republican. In 2012, the House District lines around the ACI were redrawn, but in 2010, half of the prison’s population was counted in District 16, represented by Democrat Peter Palumbo. The same year, Palumbo, who has run several campaigns on a tough-on-crime platform, tried to introduce a bill into the House modeled after Arizona’s infamous SB 1070.

     Rhode Island’s size is much of what makes the ACI’s comparably small prison population matter for districting and representation. “The problem in RI is magnified because of the nature of the state—we only have one prison, we have a relatively small population, so the skewing that takes place is fairly substantial,” says Steven Brown, director of the ACLU. The ACLU, backed by PPI and Demos, as well as local groups such as DARE, have organized both legislative and judicial challenges to Cranston’s districting of the ACI. In 2012, representatives from the ACLU and PPI testified about Ward 6’s vote distortion in front of the Cranston City Council during their redistricting process; the council chose not to change the existing practice when they drew the district lines that year. And in 2014, along with the Davidson v. Cranston lawsuit, state congressional representatives have introduced a “Residence of Those in Government Custody” (S-2286 and H-7263) bill into the House and Senate, which would mandate that all prisoners be counted as residents of their home addresses. Brown says that the ACLU chose to introduce a legal constitutional challenge to the practice as well as continuing to pursue a legislative remedy because of the upcoming elections. If the Congress passes the bill up for debate, the challenge of Davidson v. Cranston becomes moot. “In the meantime,” Brown says, “we hope the city council will reconsider and perhaps on their own agree to redraw the lines before the upcoming election.”


Redrawing district lines to exclude the prison or counting incarcerated Rhode Islanders as residents of their home addresses would solve the issue of vote distortion. But that still leaves a silence at the crux of all of this: the lack of political voice afforded to incarcerated Americans, who live inside of one of the most politicized structures in the country. Whether or not they benefit from prison-based gerrymandering, politicians use prisoners for their own political gain by employing tough-on-crime rhetoric to get elected, passing harsh sentencing laws to stay in office and building prisons to create jobs in their districts. The people who are funneled into and housed in these prisons become numbers to be manipulated.

     Davidson v. Cranston uses Section 2 of the 14th Amendment to argue for equal representation for all of the city’s non-incarcerated residents. In 1868, the 14th Amendment extended citizenship and the vote to the country’s newest and most marginalized citizens; Section 2 was intended to protect their votes from political manipulation. But in denying people who’ve committed crimes this most basic element of citizenship, this clause actually opened up new ways to disenfranchise marginalized sectors of the American populace. In considering what it means to have equal representation, we should think about why people labeled as criminals are the one class of Americans still not deserving of full political humanity. The men and women in Cranston’s Ward 6 are people, not numbers, and they should be afforded the same right of citizenship that the 14th Amendment promises to all Americans.

MEGAN HAUPTMAN B’14.5 sees people, not bodies.