Progress on prison gerrymandering on the horizon for Montana redistricters

‘Reallocating half of incarcerated people is better than reallocating no one at all’

By: - August 17, 2021 5:35 pm

Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. (Provided by the Montana Department of Corrections.)

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission has been wrestling all year with the possibility of counting incarcerated people at their last known home address for the purpose of redistricting, largely due to the difficulty of data collection. It’s an idea that poses a variety of logistical problems: Montana’s Department of Corrections, like many other state corrections agencies, doesn’t consistently record home addresses upon intake, the federal government is rarely forthcoming with data on its prisoners and the process of matching prison and census data can be cumbersome.

But the commission’s meeting on Tuesday — the first since the U.S. Census Bureau last week released the final data states need to draw their congressional maps — finally marked concrete steps toward changing the policy, complete with draft legislation, letters to state and federal officials and talk of soliciting proposals for vendors to help with the complicated data-wrangling ahead.

Difficult as it may be, redistricting experts and advocates say the longstanding Census Bureau practice of counting prisoners as residents of the fortified buildings that detain them amplifies the political power of voters who live near correctional facilities at the expense of everyone else. Essentially, it comes down to the fact that people in prisons can’t vote, but are nonetheless counted as residents of a would-be legislative or congressional district because the prison meets the Census definition of a residence: it’s where they mostly eat and sleep. And because of the disproportionate representation of people of color in prisons, the practice has an additional racial dimension.

“If we don’t count those individuals in their home districts, then this would be a significant misrepresentation, particularly along with the fact that there is an undercount of indigenous and tribal communities,” said Ta’jin Perez, deputy director of Western Native Voice. “This kind of misrepresentation would have large impacts over the next 10 years.”

A useful example is Illinois, said Ben Williams, a program principal with the National Conference of State Legislatures, at a round-table discussion on the subject during Tuesday’s meeting. He said in general, an urban center in the U.S. tends to have a higher proportion of minorities than rural areas in the U.S.

In Illinois, you have one very large urban metropolitan area … and then a relatively rural midwestern state,” said Williams. “If you think about it, it’s very advantageous to the state of Illinois to place its prisoners in rural areas … but the number of inmates, because of policing disparities, may predominantly come from Cook County and the city of Chicago. So if you have you have a predominantly urbanized inmate population held in predominantly rural prisons, and they are counted as being non-voting residents of the rural area on census day, that can create a racial disparity as well as a population disparity in those rural districts, where you may have a large prison and a relatively low number of voters.”

So, in theory, Chicago’s representation is diluted. Reallocation means that a certain number of incarcerated people would be counted as residents of their Chicago neighborhoods, potentially increasing the number of urban districts once maps are drawn. In Montana, advocates say the problem is most acute for indigenous people, who account for 18 percent of those who are incarcerated yet make up just 7 percent of the state’s population, according to a report from the Department of Corrections. So advocates hope the move could improve representation in Indian Country, especially among concerns of a Census undercount.

The commissioners are unified in their intention to address the issue, said Maylinn Smith, the panel’s chairwoman and tie-breaking vote, and on Tuesday, they began laying the groundwork for a policy change that could change how incarcerated people are allocated now and in future census cycles.


Their efforts can be broken up into the short and long term. In the latter case, officials with the Department of Corrections told commissioners during the roundtable Tuesday that collecting last-known-address data moving forward would be fairly simple and cheap.

Our management system has the ability to capture that,” said John Daugherty, Administrative Services Division Administrator with the department. He said it’s just a matter of mandating that disclosure for future prisoner intake in time for the 2030 Census. 

I have had the discussion with (DOC) Director Brian Gootkin, and he doesn’t have any concern with the department making that a mandatory requirement,” Daugherty added. 

The commissioners, for their part, are drafting a letter to Gov. Greg Gianforte asking him to direct Corrections “to gather information on prisoners’ race, ethnicity, and previous residential address data on intake to a secure facility.” The body is making similar requests to the state’s federal delegation, asking for congressional action, and to U.S. Census Bureau acting director Ron Jarmin, requesting that his office consider updating its practices. It also drafted state legislation that would have essentially the same effect.

“It actually sounds like moving forward with next steps to collect better data in the future is very workable,” said Commissioner Kendra Miller, one of the panel’s Democratic appointees. 

But taking action within the 90-day clock will be more difficult. DOC reported that it had addresses listed for a little less than half of the 2,800 adults in the system, as well as information on personal contacts and family members from visitor lists. But those addresses might not be 100 percent accurate.

The department records home addresses when people go out on parole or probation. It’s possible, Daugherty said, that a person could be released to community supervision but re-enter prison several years later, with no guarantee that the address recorded when they were paroled the first time is still accurate.

But others who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting said that any effort to reallocate some incarcerated people to their last known address would be better than doing nothing and leaving it for the next decade.

Reallocating half of incarcerated people is better than reallocating no one at all,” said Brianna Remster, a social scientist at Villanova University. “Why? Because it distorts equal representation.”

Even using old parole addresses is acceptable, given the circumstances, she said. Non-incarcerated people might change residence after their last census count all the time — the only difference “is that we made that decision ourselves about where to move.”

Smith said she believes the commission has the appetite to take the issue on this cycle. The commissioners are in the process of working to craft a request for proposal for data firms to help the state match data, though they took no formal action on Tuesday.

“The barrier has always been getting the data,” she said. “I think there’s a couple things that we’re going to have to play out and see  — how easy it is to geocode and whether we have the funds to do that.  I do think, if we can only do half, that’s half more than none at all.” 

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.