Heather Thompson exposes mass incarceration’s long-standing impact on U.S. democracy

by Leah Sakala, October 7, 2013

Chances are, your high school U.S. History class didn’t quite tell you the whole story about how the criminal justice system has cast its shadow on U.S. democracy for centuries. Here’s a chance to get the record straight.

Heather Ann Thompson, historian and Prison Policy Initiative board member, just published a must-read new article in The Atlantic, “How Prisons Have Changed America’s Electoral Politics.”

As Heather writes,

…locking up unprecedented numbers of citizens over the last forty years has itself made the prison system highly resistant to reform through the democratic process. To an extent that few Americans have yet appreciated, record rates of incarceration have, in fact, undermined our American democracy, both by impacting who gets to vote and how votes are counted.

Of course, one of the ways mass incarceration distorts democracy is via prison gerrymandering. Heather explains:

Today, just as it did more than a hundred years earlier, the way the Census calculates resident population also plays a subtle but significant role. As ex-Confederates knew well, prisoners would be counted as residents of a given county, even if they could not themselves vote: High numbers of prisoners could easily translate to greater political power for those who put them behind bars.

The full article is absolutely worth a read. We, the people, deserve to know the whole story.

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