If one thing has resulted from our country’s incessant racism embedded in the fraying threads of our democracy that so arrogantly and hypocritically declared all men were created equal, it is an understanding that there is a perpetual famine begging for the fruits of justice in the innumerable masses of discarded and unrecognized lives.
There is never a lack of injustice, never a loss for wrongs that need to be righted, never a culture satisfied with half-freedoms and surface level equality.
Our country was bred impatiently, imperfectly and is immeasurably detrimental to the lives of those deprived of justice. There has been neither a time nor generation better able to recognize its faults whilst bathing in the glory of its imperfections.
We must give in to the hope that we are the generation we have been waiting for. We must come to the realization that we can actively address the failures of those that came before us.
So let’s get to it — prison gerrymandering.
Wisconsin is one of the biggest exploiters of prison gerrymandering in the nation. The Prison Gerrymandering Project describes this practice as, “When legislators rely on the Census Bureau’s prison counts to draw legislative districts, they unintentionally give extra representation to the districts that contain prisons and dilute the votes of everyone else.”
State legislative districts in Wisconsin are drawn to include incarcerated people within the districts that those prisons are located. Since thousands of people within these districts are counted and treated as residential placeholders, this produces severely disproportional legislative districts. One could call them discount districts— the same amount of people for a fraction of the price.
Take Wisconsin’s District 53, for example, where 5,583 incarcerated peaple were counted in the last Census. Without this prison population, the district population would be 10% lower than its required size.
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District 53 has a higher population of Black people than 74 other districts in Wisconsin. 2,784 Black people reside in district 53, but 79% are incarcerated. The prison in this district is made up of 49.9% Black people. The national statistics are not much better with Black people making up only 12.7% of the total population, but 41.3% of the incarcerated population.
It gets worse.
Because of Wisconsin’s law stating that population is determined by the most recent Census count, the impact on the local level is dramatic, to say the least. Some examples include — 75% of District 2 in Waupun County is incarcerated, 62% of Adams County Districts 13 and 5 are incarcerated and 80% of one district and 53% of another district in Juneau City are incarcerated.
It’s not just that much of these districts are majority incarcerated, it is also that many of their voices aren’t being heard.
When discussing the interests of his 61% incarcerated district, Ald. Ryan Mielke of D-3 of Waupun County said, “There’s no reason to communicate on property I don’t have access to.”
There has been a call to action, though one that has flown under the radar, for changing state law to count people who reside in prisons in Wisconsin at their last address before incarceration. There has even been a proposed amendment to the statues that require this change by the 2019-2020 State Legislature — deeming individuals in prisons as residents of their former municipalities, not the prison they inhabit.
But it doesn’t go far enough.
It is time to reexamine the thought process that leads most people to believe incarcerated people should not be granted the right to vote.
There are two dominant reasons why people believe prison populations should not get the right to vote. First, it is that they have committed crimes deserving of forfeiture of their basic freedoms, hence prison. Secondly, they cannot participate fully in society, so there is no reason to cast a vote that won’t affect them.
To counter the first argument, I present the case argued in 1958 of Trop v. Dulles stating a prisoner cannot under law lose their right to citizenship.
The most basic and fundamental freedom one enjoys as a citizen is their right to vote. I implore you to consider that, for those in prisons who are subject to close quarters, lack of physical activity, violence, beatings, rape, psychological abuse, lack of adequate— in some cases, any— health care and an overall stripping of one’s humanity, being there is enough. It is overkill. They’re still citizens who deserve to elect a representative who is going to fight for their safety and ability to get back to the world they once knew.
Which leads me to my second counterargument— claiming prisoners don’t deserve the right to vote because it does not affect their lives. This is not only misleading, but follows the school of thought that a vote should only be cast for oneself. The abhorrent nature of a purely selfish vote is what is preventing these people from getting their voices heard. It’s no wonder our criminal justice system is the worst on this planet.
As previously mentioned, the population of Black Americans is around 12.7% while the incarcerated population of Black Americans is 41.3%. This can be traced back all the way to the 13th Amendment, which states, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
There are more Black men in the prison system today than were enslaved in 1850, Black Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses despite equal usage rates and, on average, Black Americans serve only three months less in prison for non-violent drug offenses than white Americans charged for violent crimes.
There is no denying the institutional racism against Black Americans in our “justice” system. Therefore, there is no argument to be made against enfranchising the incarcerated without directly contributing to the cyclical and inhumane system of racism that will hold back generations of Black Americans to come.
There is no telling how long this maddening game will go on. Be on the just side of history. No justice, no peace.
Kaitlin Kons ([email protected]) is a junior studying political science and public policy.