Warren Evans
White, rural communities benefit from the “prison industrial complex,” writes Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans. (Wayne County photo)

No citizen who has ever been incarcerated would make the mistake of confusing their prison cell with their home. Prison is nobody’s home.

So it should be obvious that incarcerated people in Michigan should be counted as residents based on where they choose to live and where they will likely return upon release, not where they are temporarily and involuntarily housed. Typically, returning citizens do not remain in the rural areas where those prisons are located after their period of incarceration is done. They return home after their release, to their own communities and where they lived prior to their sentences.

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Redistricting practices in Michigan have historically benefited the predominantly white and rural communities where state prisons are located by giving them greater political power, while taking away the representative power of communities of color, which are disproportionately impacted by the broken criminal justice system and the expansion of the prison industrial complex. For example, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, after the 2000 census, four state Senate districts and five state House districts met federal minimum population requirements due to individuals confined in prisons in those districts.

The hope was that new and improved practices would be adopted resulting from the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission’s plans to level the political playing field and allow for more equitable political representation in Michigan. Instead, the Commission has inexplicably decided that one of the best ways to upgrade Michigan’s democracy is to eliminate the only majority minority (Black) districts in the state. So now, not only will incarcerated citizens— many of whom are Black and Brown — continue to be erased from the census tally of their home communities, but those communities will be further disenfranchised and weakened by the potential silencing of their collective voice as their political power is diluted in the name of political party over political representation.

In short, the majority Black communities are getting screwed. Again. Same as it ever was.

According to data from the Michigan Department of Corrections’ (MDOC) Office of Research & Planning, nearly 10,000 prisoners sentenced in Wayne County, most of whom are likely residents of Wayne County, are currently incarcerated in MDOC facilities outside of Wayne County. Under Michigan’s current redistricting practices, these prisoners would not be counted in the redistricting of local, state legislative, or congressional districts in Wayne County, but would contribute to the representative power of the Michigan communities where they are incarcerated, even though they are unlikely to live in those areas upon their release. This practice distorts representative power from their home communities to the prison communities. Individuals serving prison sentences also cannot attend town hall meetings, visit the offices of legislators representing the districts surrounding the prisons, or even vote for those legislators while incarcerated.

Nine states currently have laws that use the last known residences of prisoners, rather than the location of the prisons where they are incarcerated, for legislative redistricting purposes. Each of the nine states vary in how they count prison populations, particularly in whether they address both state and federal prisoners, and whether they use prisoners’ last known addresses for both state legislative districts and U.S. congressional districts. Those states are: California (2011), Colorado (2020), Delaware (2010), Maryland (2010), Nevada (2019), New Jersey (2020), New York (2010), Virginia (2020), and Washington (2019).

Legislative reform requiring the use of pre-incarceration addresses in redistricting, such as the bill introduced by state Sen. Sylvia Santana in February 2021, would yield benefits for the state’s political process. Even without legislation, these redistricting reforms could have been implemented by the Redistricting Commission under current law because the U.S. Census Bureau does not require states to count prison populations at the location of the prisons for the purpose of redistricting. In fact, the Census Bureau has developed the Census Geocoder, a data tool designed specifically to assist states seeking to count prisoners as residents of their actual home cities. Further, no other federal or Michigan law either requires the Redistricting Commission to count incarcerated persons in the communities where the prisons are located or prevents the Commission from utilizing the U.S. Census Bureau’s Geocoder service to count incarcerated persons in their home communities. 

Michigan voters, seeking to have their voices heard, adopted a state constitutional amendment in 2018 to provide the Redistricting Commission with ample resources to produce a fair and accurate redistricting plan for the next decade. Those resources should, in collaboration with the MDOC, be used with the Census Bureau’s Geocoder to count every Michigan citizen where they choose to live, not where they are temporarily housed. Only then can Michigan end “prison gerrymandering.”

To continue this practice would compound and extend an injustice that never should have been allowed in the first place. Your home is where you live, not where you serve time. 

Now is the time to make this right.

Warren C. Evans is the Wayne County executive.

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