How Prisons Imperil Black Voting Power in Post-Katrina Louisiana

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By Zoe Sullivan

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 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.”

This article was originally published by New America Media.

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