There is a big defect in the way Wisconsin counts prisoners in the Census. This defect is called prison gerrymandering, and it amounts to a modern-day Three-Fifths Compromise.
Instead of counting prisoners as living in the community they came from, Wisconsin counts them as living where the prison is located.
This results in an inflated redistribution of political and financial power to prison towns and a corresponding decrease in resources to impovershed communities in Wisconsin, where most of the state’s prison population comes from.
It also results in poor representation when district maps are cut, when federal funding from census data is distributed, and congressional representation.
A year and a half ago, the NPR podcast Code Switch looked at prison gerrymandering in Wisconsin. Reporter Hansi Lo Wang visited the city of Waupun, where prisoners make up more than a quarter of the population. The prisoners he talked to did not consider Waupun home, and the alderperson whose district includes the prison, with prisoners accounting for 76 percent of his district, had never even been inside the prison.
Once the Census counts an inmate as living where the prison is located, that designation lasts a decade, even though the inmate is likely to get out sooner and go back home.
According to a recent article from The New Republic, “the average length of incarceration is between two and three years, when incarcerated people return home, the population of their home district increases, diluting the power of each individual vote and giving communities most impacted by incarceration less representation in state and local government.”
State officials who represent prison towns have no incentive to change the way Wisconsin counts prisoners. In fact, they have a vested interest in this distorted allocation of resources and power.
There is a racist component to prison gerrymandering as well. Most incarcertaed people in Wisconsin are Black and brown. They tend to come from urban communities with heavier policing, which feeds into the prison industrial complex. And because of prison gerrymandering, Black and brown communities are losing resources and power, whereas white communities are gaining.
Other states have come to grips with this problem and have outlawed prison gerrymandering. These states include California, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Washington.
Wisconsin should do the same.