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PORTSIDE  September 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE September 2011, Week 1

Subject:

How Prisons Imperil Black Voting Power

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Date:

Mon, 5 Sep 2011 02:11:57 -0400

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text/plain (231 lines)

How Prisons Imperil Black Voting Power in Post-Katrina Louisiana
Zoe Sullivan
New America Media
September 1, 2011
http://newamericamedia.org/2011/09/how-prisons-imperil-black-voting-power-in-post-katrina-louisiana.php

NEW ORLEANS-Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is
one of the most notorious prisons in the United States.
Sometimes called "The Farm" because of its plantation-
like set-up, it houses almost 5,300 men, of whom 3,900
are serving life sentences, 968 face terms of 40 years
or more, and 83 are on death row.

The prison is located 90 minutes north of Baton Rouge in
the verdant countryside near the Mississippi River and
the tourist town of St. Francisville. For purposes of
redistricting, the penitentiary and the town-whose
population is approximately one-third that of the
prison-are in the same state senate district. But
because inmates can't vote, they have no say in how the
state or parish is governed. Thus, roughly one-eighth of
the district's residents are politically voiceless.

For criminal justice advocates, this discrepancy between
eligible voters and counted population is a stark
example of how prisons are skewing Louisiana's political
process, shifting power from urban areas to rural ones
and further disenfranchising African-American
communities suffering from the historic legacy of racism
and the recent calamity of Hurricane Katrina.

"As far as we're concerned, this recreates the
plantation system," says Rosana Cruz, associate director
of Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), a New Orleans-based
organization dedicated to reintegrating formerly
incarcerated people.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Louisiana
has the highest per capita male prison population in the
United States, with African-Americans incarcerated at
much higher rates than Whites. Angola's Black
population, for example, is 78 percent. Roughly 1 out of
2 blacks in the state House electoral district that
includes Angola are ineligible to vote.

Many inmates in the state's 12 prisons come from urban
centers such as New Orleans, but they end up being
included in the population of more remote areas, thus
helping divert state and federal money to those areas.
But since prisoners can't vote, people in districts
"stuffed" with inmates effectively have more political
power than residents of other districts, while
politicians in those districts are accountable to a
smaller constituency. This violates the U.S.
Constitution's "one person, one vote" rule, activists
contend.

"The prisoners, who cannot vote and are not free to use
the allocations [government funding and services] that
their numbers help garner for the district, simply exist
for the political and economic benefit of their
jailers," Cruz says. "In a district like where Angola
is. there aren't that many people so the needs are not
comparable [to those of a place like New Orleans]."

New Orleans's Lost Population

Six years after Katrina, New Orleans's population is
two-thirds what it was before the hurricane. According
to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, 84
percent of the 140,845 residents lost over the past
decade are African-American. This loss, coupled with the
hurdles that have prevented many low-income people from
returning, make the issue of representation particularly
sensitive here.

Now the state's redistricting process - including the
practice of counting inmates where they are
incarcerated, known as prison-based gerrymandering-is
"the nail in the coffin to a just recovery," says Trap
Bronner of Moving Forward Gulf Coast.

Prison-based gerrymandering has been drawing scrutiny in
other states as well. New York and Maryland recently
passed legislation to change the way prisoners are
counted in the current round of redistricting. Delaware
will change its methods starting with the 2020 Census,
while a bill to force California to do the same is
advancing in the state Legislature.

"Each [of those states] had districts where, without the
prison population, the district wouldn't meet the
minimum requirements for the district population," says
Aleks Kajtsura, legal director for the group Prison
Policy Initiative (PPI). "So passing these laws makes
[the state] closer to the Supreme Court standard of `one
person, one vote.'"

Because of its history of African-American
disenfranchisement, Louisiana must comply with Section 5
of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. This means
that redistricting proposals must be reviewed by the
Department of Justice (DOJ) prior to approval to ensure
that redrawn maps don't dilute the ability of minority
voters to elect representatives of their choice.

Although the NAACP filed a complaint with the DOJ about
the 2011 redistricting process, proposed maps for the
state's legislative districts were pre-cleared at the
end of June and will likely be in force until the next
redistricting in 2021. But advocates continue to fight
to make redistricting more equitable at the local level
and to bring about changes in the way inmates are
counted when drawing electoral districts.

One Congressional District Lost

Because of the post-Katrina population shifts, Louisiana
lost one member of its Congressional delegation in the
current round of reapportionment.

Moving Forward's Bronner criticized the state's new
political maps as "classic gerrymandering." He fears
that since the Congressional district that includes New
Orleans has been redrawn and enlarged to include more
conservative suburban areas, city residents will have a
tougher time electing a Congressional member who
reflects the city's distinctive cultural and political
environment.

That district is currently represented by Cedric
Richmond, the only Democrat in Louisiana's congressional
delegation. While serving in the state Legislature,
Richmond introduced a bill that would have changed the
way prisoners are counted for redistricting purposes,
but that proposal went nowhere.

"It makes more sense to count them where they're going
to return home to, where they're going to need
services...so we'll be able to best support those
communities," Richmond told New America Media.

Mayor: Angola Prisoners Are "Like They're Dead"

While New Orleans residents are hurting over their loss
of representation, some of their counterparts in West
Feliciana Parish, where Angola is located, argue that
while it may not be right to count prisoners where
they're incarcerated, it's also not right to count them
elsewhere.

"They shouldn't be counted [at all]," says St.
Francisville Mayor Billy D'Aquila. "Seventy-five percent
of [Angola's inmates] are doing life. It's like they're
dead. They shouldn't be counted as citizens. They put
themselves out of society. They raped a child or
murdered [someone]. We have them in a warehouse, or a
graveyard."

D'Aquila also disagrees with shifting the count to the
place where an inmate resided prior to incarceration.
"They don't live in the district. They've been taken out
for life..If they're a productive citizen, they should
be counted. They're a burden on that district,
actually."

Despite their different views on the matter, D'Aquila
and critics of the current method agree that one issue
related to counting inmates are the resources that are
allocated based on population. Like D'Aquila, state Rep.
Rick Gallot, an African-American Democrat who represents
a district in Northern Louisiana and has been actively
involved in the redistricting process, also opposes
channeling the funds associated with prison residents to
their previous homes' districts.

"I disagree because we have to have a road that leads to
[a prison], so in a population count, if that area shows
no population, we run the risk of not winning funds for
road construction where we know there are people," he
says. Moreover, Gallot explained, such a change "would
be of benefit to someone like [Cedric Richmond] who
represented New Orleans-having those people allocated
back to Orleans would prop their numbers up."

Cedric Floyd, a demographer and redistricting consultant
based in New Orleans, argues that for state-level
offices, the impact of prisons is generally less than 10
percent of the population and, consequently, not
substantial in terms of distorting voting power. Floyd
noted that for smaller entities, such as school boards,
inmates are not counted. This is the case in West
Feliciana Parish. The Angola population is also excluded
from the tally for Police Jury districts, which are
similar to county commissioners.

However, according to the Prison Policy Initiative,
there is no readily available research to indicate
whether this kind of exclusion is taking place in all
Louisiana parishes with large prison populations. This
year, however, LaSalle and Concordia Parishes did begin
excluding inmates from the redistricting process for
local offices and school boards.

Not everyone sees the question in stark terms. Major
Thibaut, a White, first-term Democrat who represents
Louisiana House District 18, which incorporates Angola,
acknowledges the representation issue surrounding
inmates and says he is willing to discuss the matter.
"I'm always open to it. To say I'd be for it or against,
I don't know. I don't want to paint myself into a
corner, but I certainly would be open to it right now."

___________________________________________

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on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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