NAACP, Yale Law sue state over ‘prison gerrymandering’

Yale Law School student Ashley Hall addresses press conference on suit challenging prison gerrymandering.

Yale Law School student Ashley Hall addresses press conference on suit challenging prison gerrymandering.

NEW HAVEN — The NAACP has sued the state for what it terms “prison gerrymandering,” where inmates are counted as residents for purposes of drawing state legislative district lines in the towns where they are incarcerated, rather than at their pre-incarceration address.

Filed Thursday in U.S. District Court here by the Rule of Law Clinic at the Yale Law School and the NAACP, the plaintiffs said it is the first statewide challenge in the country on this issue.

The current district lines, according to the suit, violate the “one person, one vote” equal protection mandate of the 14th Amendment.

“The practice results in a shifting of voting power away from urban centers, such as Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, where a disproportionate number of the mostly African American and Latino prison population resided prior to incarceration,” Brad Berry, NAACP general counsel, said at a press conference at the law school.

He said it “artificially skews voting power toward the more rural and less racially diverse areas where the state has chosen to locate the prisons.”

“We simply cannot accept that the state of Connecticut ships inmates to rural areas far from their homes, then uses the fiction of their supposed residence in those areas to dilute the electoral power of their home communities,” Berry said.

In a statement, Derrick Johnson, the national NAACP president and CEO, said the practice “is one aspect of a war of voter suppression targeting communities of color and reducing the integrity of the vote.”

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, who is named in the suit, in addition to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said she had not yet received it, but also plays no role in the state’s redistricting process.

Merrill however, said she has consistently supported legislation to end the practice.

“Prison gerrymandering unfairly inflates the size of some districts at the expense of others, and ending the practice will give a more accurate population count of our urban communities,” Merrill said in a statement.

While the policy of the governor’s office is to not comment on pending lawsuits, his office is continuing to review the filing, Leigh Appleby, Malloy’s press secretary, said in a statement.

Senate Republican President Pro Tempore Len Fasano, R-North Haven, questioned why the NAACP is so focused on politics and said nothing on how inmates were treated in prison under the University of Connecticut’s Health Correctional Managed Healthcare Unit.

He said there has been “a substantiated pattern of medical neglect that has allegedly led to serious injury and death of inmates.”

Yale Law School student Ashley Hall said in some districts in the northern part of the state as much as 10 percent of the population counted toward redistricting were prisoners.

“That means that without them, the population of that district would not meet the threshold. At a baseline level, in order to have one person, one vote, each individual should be represented equally and have equal voting power,” Hall said.

To do that, Hall said the state must draw district lines so they have roughly the same population.

The 10 percent who are prisoners in these rural towns are disenfranchised, according to the suit, as they could not vote for a state representative and have no connection to the community. The suit says they found that the legislators in those districts do not visit the prisoners.

Hall said there is one district in the north, District 59, which includes Enfield and East Windsor, that has three prisons and she compared it to the most populated districts with no prisons.

The representative of District 59 is Carol Hall, a Republican who resides in Enfield.

When prisoners were reallocated to their home districts, the population off District 59 had a population that was 15 percent smaller than the most populated district.

The second-year law student said this means the individuals voting in that prison district have a vote that is worth 15 percent more that individuals located in the district without the prison,, something that is presumptively unconstitutional.

The suits asks the court to declare the current redistricting maps unconstitutional.

Hall said they chose to bring a suit against Connecticut because it had stark differences among its districts. She said only California, New York and Maryland have changed dealing with prisoners in this manner. Berry said they are considering bringing suit against other states as well as Connecticut.

Germano Kimbro, who has been working on justice issues in New Haven since he was released from prison in 1990 after serving time on drug violations, said he understands illegal activity has consequences.

“It is disheartening to see a society where there is an illusion of fairness and justice and democracy when we are being denied the very things that we are supposed to be about. When the rule makers begin to break the rules it makes you wonder what kind of society we are living in,” Kimbro said.

State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said unfortunately there is little interest in changing the current situation, even among Democrats because of the uncertainty as to how it would play out in redistricting.

“It is not a top priority for people. It is a priority of mine,” Winfield said.

He said people in prison are never going to vote in the districts where they are incarcerated since they would continue to be away from family and the services they would need once they are back in society.

Winfield said he believes political power should be counted were it really resides. The state senator said however, if there are benefits that accrue to these rural communities because of the prisons within their borders, he would favor allowing them to continue to receive them as long as the prison count is changed.

State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, whose district contains several prisons, could not be reached for comment. The study by the Yale Law students was of the House districts.