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I co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative to put the problem of mass incarceration — and the perverse incentives that fuel it — on the national agenda. Over the last 16 years, our campaigns have protected our democracy from the prison system and protected the poorest families in this country from the predatory prison telephone industry. Our reports untangle the statistics and recruit new allies.

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Alternative Spring Break at the Prison Policy Initiative

by Arielle Sharma, March 19, 2014

I spent the last week here at PPI for an Alternative Spring Break. I am from Connecticut, went to Boston University and am now at University of Connecticut Law School. I was excited to spend my week at PPI because of the excellent work they do to document the effects of mass incarceration with real numbers. I think my interest in prison began at a young age. I am of mixed race, half Indian and half Israeli. I had family who had been put in “prisons” during the Holocaust in Europe, and on my father’s side, I had family put in prison for marching with Gandhi. When I was young, the people I knew who had been in prison were not bad people. Too often, we dismiss incarcerated people because they are or have been deemed ‘criminals’ by society. Whether or not they have broken a law, they are still people who must be treated with respect.

Arielle Sharma and Corey Frost at the Connecticut State House2014 Alternative Spring Break Law Interns Arielle Sharma (right) and Corey Frost (left) at the Connecticut State House.

This week, I was able to work on a project explaining one way in which exploitation of incarcerated people undermines the democratic rights of those of us not in prisons- Prison gerrymandering. Prison gerrymandering lessens the voice we have in our government. When the area each elected official represents is distributed based on population, people in prisons are sometimes used to boost numbers in certain areas even though the prisoners have no vote in government. This means that people who live near a prison get more of a say because the representative they elect is not serving the prison population and so each vote cast by the actual residents of the district is counted more.

This week, I continued the research on how/if this gerrymandering is happening on one of the most local scales: school board elections. (Fun fact I wish my school board had taught me in high school: School boards have A LOT of power. In many places, they have a say in curriculum, extra-curriculars, budgets, and some hiring and firing decisions) Even though school boards may seem too small to matter, the effects of prison gerrymandering actually become greater as the total population gets smaller. In my research, I found a majority of school boards don’t have problems with prison gerrymandering because they have at-large elections, which means everyone gets to vote for every school board member in their area, regardless of where they live. They are all sharing their voting power with each other, so everyone’s vote weighs the same.

I learned Bureaucracy is no joke. We all know the outcome of policy decisions, but few know how we’ve gotten to the system we have. Luckily, 99% of the people talked in the schools and town halls were super nice. Unluckily, these fine folks generally haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about prison gerrymandering. I called school boards in New Jersey, Connecticut, Missouri, Michigan, Alabama and Colorado. After many questions, many gentle rephrasings and many call transfers, I found two schools districts that allocate voting power based on population:

  • The people lines in RE-1 Valley School District in Sterling, CO were super on top of things, and were savvy enough to take out their prison population.
  • Despite a lot of help from a lot of people in Hunterdon County, NJ, it is still unclear if prison populations are kept in when North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional board member districts.

Either way, the Supreme Court has supported ending prison gerrymandering and more than 200 local governments have already ended it on their own so hopefully this will soon be moot on every level.

PPI works on a lot of issues, so I had the luck to help on some other problems, too. I went with Aleks who was testifying in Connecticut on a bill trying to at least lessen the enhanced penalty zones (currently a 1500ft radius) for selling or possessing drugs around a school, public housing, or day care. Of course, research shows that kids are far more likely to get drugs from each other than random adults.

But in addition to that, the zones are way too big to make a difference in deterring drug activity away from schools. In Connecticut, school zones are 1500 feet. Do you know how far that is? You could lay the empire state building on its side, and still have a few hundred feet to spare! That’s way too long (Watch this guy free climb 1500ft mountain and then tell me that’s not a crazy distance- the video doesn’t even get all the way to the top!).

When whole cities are turned into enhanced penalty zones, where is the incentive to specifically stay away from schools? Instead, zone policies end up giving extra penalties to people who are often doing things in their own homes (over 90% of some Connecticut cities’ residences are in these zones). Plus, the areas aren’t marked so there is no way to tell if you’re on the bad side of the line (assuming the other side hasn’t put you into another school zone).

Prison gerrymandering and enhanced penalty school zones are just two of the MANY things going on at PPI, make sure to check out the rest of the site for more!

-Arielle

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