Prison gerrymandering distorts this picture in two ways: by artificially inflating the population of places where prisons are, and artificially decreasing the population of the places where prisoners come from.
Add to that the constitutional principle of one person, one vote, which requires all legislative districts to be roughly the same size. If large groups of people are counted in the wrong place, the result is a government skewed in favor of some and against others.
When it comes to prisoners, the skew follows a clear pattern: Prisoners are disproportionately Black and brown people from urban areas, and prisons are disproportionately built in more rural areas. So counting people where they’re imprisoned takes political power away from racial minorities in cities and transfers it to whites in rural areas.
In one Rhode Island House district, for instance, prisoners account for nearly 16% of the population, even though only 4% of them are from that district.
In Juneau County, Wis., it’s even worse: Prisoners account for 80 percent of the entire population of one district.
For most of American history the distortions caused by prison gerrymandering didn’t make much difference. There weren’t that many people behind bars. That changed with the incarceration boom that began in the 1980s. Today, more than two million people are held in state and federal prisons and local jails, with concrete consequences for politics and policy.