‘Prison gerrymandering’ creates incomplete picture ahead of redistricting in Nevada
Nevada law requires prison officials to compile a list of the last known residential addresses for inmates in state prisons. This is so they can be counted in their home districts before lawmakers begin redistricting, but that data is incomplete. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck sat down with Sam Metz, a reporter for the Associated Press to learn more.
Lucia Starbuck: So, you’ve been covering the issue of “prison gerrymandering.” Can you break down what that entails exactly?
Sam Metz: Every decade the US Census Bureau conducts a count to see what the population is of every city, county and state in the country, and how it’s changed. They use that count, then, to redraw political maps.
For a few decades, the Census Bureau has counted inmates at their addresses in prison. If there is a town that’s relatively small, it can have a huge effect on the recorded population of that town. Detractors argue that this inflates the population and in turn the voting power of some of these rural towns at the expense of the communities where they’re from, and most people are serving sentences of less than 10 years, and research shows, move back to the communities that they’re from. So, that’s kind of the argument against “prison gerrymandering.”
There’s also, I would say, partisan and racial implications. In Nevada, 51% of the population is white, but 58% of the prison population is Black, Latino, Asian, or native, so what this will do is redistribute power away from some of those communities that are minority communities and towards some of these kind of smaller rural white communities.
Starbuck: A 2019 law requires prison officials to gather the last known residential addresses of inmates in state prisons. What have you learned from your reporting? How incomplete is that data?
Metz: When the Department of Corrections started compiling the addresses, they ran into some administrative difficulties. First of all, last known residential address isn’t always a clear cut idea, so, for example, if you’re serving 40 to life, you might not have a last known residential address on file. There’s a lot of people who, before being incarcerated, they might have lived between friends’ homes and not had a last known residential address. There’s a lot of people whose families may have been moving; they might have been experiencing homelessness.
The Nevada Department of Corrections sent the state demographer records for 12,214 inmates, and the state demographer and the legislative staff that’s focused on redistricting said that they couldn’t use the majority of those addresses because they didn’t qualify as the last known residential address. The information wasn’t complete or inputted correctly, or just, simply, people hadn’t provided the information at all. So, even though we have this law, which very clearly directs the Department of Corrections to supply all available information, only about half of the inmates who are incarcerated in Nevada state prisons will be reallocated.
Starbuck: What kinds of impacts will there be in rural Nevada?
Metz: First, I want to caveat this. I think one of the things a lot of people worry about is the census is used to distribute federal resources. This reallocation process is completely a state process, so it doesn’t affect any of their federal funds allocation. This is completely just for redistricting, but the redistricting implications for some of these rural counties is very significant. Pershing County, based on the information that the Department of Corrections provided, lost, I think, 10% of its population, and that’s after reallocating less than half of the inmates at Lovelock Correctional Center, so the stakes are very large. There are state Senate and state Assembly districts that will lose roughly 3% of their population based on this incomplete reallocation.
Starbuck: Can the data be submitted by the time lawmakers sit down to redraw the political maps?
Metz: That’s a good question that I can’t answer, but the timeline is very compressed. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t collect this information to be used further on later down the road. Also, they can change the way that they collect people’s last known residential addresses. Some people who are incarcerated entered the prison system when the state was still using a more manual and paper records-based system, so the department has gone through its paper records to try to improve the quality of its data, and they’ve asked inmates directly to provide their last known residential addresses, so there are tactics that they are attempting to improve their data.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Read more of his reporting on “prison gerrymandering” here.