Gerrymandering in CT prisons has damaged the political power of cities. Here’s how.

A government agent once described the area around Clay Arsenal in the 1930s as a slum “now mostly occupied by blacks”. Hartford’s predominantly black neighborhood sloped toward the river, prone to flooding. The town was congested. Agriculture was dispersed. It was considered a “dangerous” place for mortgage lenders to invest their money, the worst possible mark for any locality.

With this description, the area was effectively edged in red.

More than 90 years later, the now predominantly Latino and Black neighborhood has one of the highest incarceration rates in Connecticut, according to a new report.

Those incarcerated in Connecticut come disproportionately from Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven — four of the state‘s most populous cities, where people of color are heavily concentrated.

These were among several revelations in the report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a New England-based policy think tank, titled “Where the People in Prison Come From: Connecticut’s Geography of Mass Incarceration.” The study provided a comprehensive look at the previous trampling locations of Connecticut’s incarcerated people, who until last year were believed to live in the towns where their correctional facilities were located — a practice known as “gerrymandering.” in prison “.

“No community is immune to the encroachment of the criminal justice system,” Emily Widra, senior research analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, told CT Mirror. “The effects of incarceration at the community level are so significant that we can no longer place individualized blame or put it on the criminal behavior of an individual or something. It’s really entire communities that are affected by this.”

The analysis – which looks in part at the number of people incarcerated per 100,000 people to compare cities and towns in Connecticut – found that Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven have the highest incarceration rates. Hartford, which has the highest rate, has eight neighborhoods with rates above 1,000 people per 100,000 residents. Connecticut has a average rate of 394 people per 100,000 inhabitants.

Of Connecticut’s five largest cities, Stamford has a relatively low incarceration rate of 214 people per 100,000 population. But the city also has a low number of black, Hispanic or Latino residents and residents experiencing poverty.

A CT Mirror analysis shows that incarceration rates tend to rise across regions as poverty rates rise and median family income falls. Connecticut owns the nation second highest Hispanic and white disparity and third black and white disparity in incarceration rates, according to The Sentencing Project.

“It’s racism and racial profiling,” said Tiheba Bain, founder and executive director of Women Against Mass Incarceration. “They lock us up in our communities, put them in their communities in a cage, and then they say we’re home.”

The number of state legislative seats a city receives is based on its population. This means that prison gerrymandering effectively stripped political power from more diverse and urban areas and shifted it to predominantly white, rural towns with correctional facilities. The gerrymandering of prisons also meant that Connecticut’s incarcerated people were represented by lawmakers who often didn’t “feel the same responsibility to people in prison as they feel to their other constituents,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The practice resulted in a 2018 federal trial by the NAACP. The plaintiffs argued that gerrymandering in prisons violated the Fourteenth Amendment by inflating “the vote count of predominantly white voters residing in certain Connecticut House and Senate districts” relative to the vote count of people in d other House and Senate districts.

“The problem of gerrymandering in prisons is particularly severe in Connecticut due to the state’s concentration of prisoners in facilities located significant distances from their home communities,” the lawsuit said. The case was voluntarily shelved before the 2021 legislative session.

The Prison Policy Initiative study comes a year after Connecticut lawmakers asked the state to count incarcerated people who can’t vote as part of the cities they lived in before the lockdown. Connecticut is one of many states that have eliminated the mass incarceration era policy. The bill had bipartisan support and came into force ahead of the 2021 redistricting process.

Advocates blasted the political effects of prison gerrymandering on underserved communities. According to the Prison Policy Initiative study, high incarceration rates are linked to a host of negative outcomes, including high unemployment, low household income, and a high percentage of residents without a high school diploma or GED. The study also highlights Hartford’s history of redlining.

Contrary to the government’s description of the Clay Arsenal of the 1930s, the predominantly white area surrounding the Hartford Golf Club was described at the time as “high, rolling, wooded ground with a pleasant outlook”. The West End, near the golf club, has the lowest incarceration rate of Hartford’s neighborhoods.

Democratic Sen. Gary Winfield, who represents New Haven and has long opposed prison gerrymandering, said the report’s findings are the result of decisions those in power have historically made to disenfranchise people of color. .

“You make racialized choices, you get racialized outcomes,” Winfield said. “What I’ve seen nationally and in Connecticut is that people basically want political decisions to go away because of personal decisions, and that’s just not how it works. So we have to be intentional in terms of policy to undo the harm we have done. »

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