As North Carolina lawmakers resolve electoral districts, there is a lot of talk about how to fairly draw those lines. But one population in particular is left behind: around 40,000 inmates in state and federal prisons.
Twelve states have decided to count state prisoners in the area where they last resided in an attempt to distribute power more equitably. North Carolina has no plans to do this at the state level, but some local jurisdictions are wondering how to handle prisoners when they are redistributed.
Five percent of Granville County residents are prisoners. It houses a state prison and the Butner Federal Correctional Complex.
“You have every level of jail you can think of, so these people all went into the count,” Granville County Commissioner Tim Karan said.
For this reason, the county decided to count the prisoners as residents in order to draw political lines. In the last Granville redistribution in 2013, this left a county board and school district with inmates representing nearly a third of residents. It was a smaller share than it had been.
This time around, Karan said the county should draw these lines as if the prisons weren’t there.
“We should absolutely exclude them because it is advantageous for me to have a smaller number of individuals that I serve and it is crucial for them not to have someone in the county who is supposed to have additional representation,” Karan said.
However, this is not a topic Karan hears much about from his constituents and he doesn’t think it has a real impact on how Commissioners’ decisions play out.
Hillary Harris Klein, lawyer for the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said counting prisoners in this way distorts representation at the local level the most, but it has ripple effects across states.
âIf you think about the fact that people are often incarcerated in rural areas, there is a transfer of power from urban areas to representational rural areas where people are counted for the census in an area, but their real constitutive relationship is back home and it’s often in urban areas, âsaid Harris Klein.
This often means that rural areas see their populations swelled by prison populations that are disproportionately black and Latin American, who make up 43% of the state’s prison population in North Carolina. In North Carolina, that racial difference may not be that great, as several of the counties where the prisons are located already have large black populations.
Yet prisoners make up a large portion of residents in many counties across the state, according to the Marshall project. In Greene County, in the eastern part of the state, it’s 15%. In coastal Hyde County it’s 12% and in Anson County closer to Charlotte it’s 6%.
“The best solution to this would be for the census to count people incarcerated in their last residence before their incarceration,” said Harris Klein. “This would be, in our opinion, the most accurate way to report on these people.”
A recent study of the legislative districts of the state of Pennsylvania by professors at Villanova University found “a substantial probability” that Philadelphia would get an additional majority-minority district if the reassigned state prisoner counted. Pennsylvania is now one of 12 states that plan to count prisoners this way.
In North Carolina, the idea did not have political success, said Democratic State Senator Natasha Marcus of Mecklenburg County. She is on the North Carolina Senate Redistribution Committee.
âIt’s not the way we’ve done it before, and I haven’t heard anyone talk about it as an option for North Carolina,â Marcus said.
A spokesperson for Republican State Senate Leader Phil Berger said lawmakers saw no good reason to apply a residency rule to almost the entire population and a different rule to a small subset .
Bob Phillips, the leader of Common Cause, one of the state’s major voting rights groups, says racial and partisan gerrymandering has kept the organization so busy that the issue of prisons has gotten somewhat lost in the reshuffle.
âIt’s one of those issues in this very complicated and convoluted subject of redistribution that really needs to be addressed,â Phillips said. âIt really interests us, but we probably haven’t given it as much attention as we maybe should and maybe it deserves. “
For now, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice is concentrating its efforts on obtaining electoral districts by local courts without counting prisoners as residents. They have sent letters to 16 counties, towns and school boards in North Carolina where inmates represent a significant portion of the districts explaining how they can do this.
The Prison Policy Initiative, a group that also advocates for change, tracks neighborhoods like these. Group legal director Aleks Kajstura said North Carolina is not the worst state it has seen in this regard, but it still has a long way to go.
âWe’re looking at places in North Carolina where about 40% of a city or county districtâ¦ are people incarcerated and it’s unfortunately not the worst in the country,â Kajstura said.
She says more than 200 local jurisdictions, including Columbus and Caswell counties in North Carolina, excluded prisoners from their population counts in the last round of redistribution.
This is what the Granville County Commissioners are now thinking of doing as well, Karan said. Many other prison communities will have to determine whether to count prisoners among their constituents in the coming weeks.