HOLDENVILLE — Surrounded by soft rolling hills and small cattle herds, more than 1,300 men live together on the outskirts of this Southeastern Oklahoma community.
You won’t find them shopping for groceries at Walmart or eating a half-pound burger and fries at Pat’s Cafe on Oak Street. The quality of local roads and public schools don’t concern them.
They don’t vote, but they do count towards the area’s political representation in Oklahoma City.
Nearly a quarter of Holdenville’s population is made up of people incarcerated at the Davis Correctional Facility, a medium-security private prison owned and operated by CoreCivic. When the state legislature convenes for a special redistricting session on Monday, the prisoners will be counted the same as those who reside, work, shop and dine in Holdenville and Hughes County.
“I don’t like that they are technically included because they can’t give a benefit,” said Jessica Janes, a 32-year-old small business owner and former teacher who ran as a Republican candidate for House District 18 in 2018. “They’re not in a position to vote, so I don’t want an empty body without a say in what’s going on.”
Holdenville isn’t an outlier. More than a dozen rural communities with large prisons, including Sayre, Granite, Fort Supply and Hominy, will see their populations inflated by incarcerated people during redistricting.
Criminal justice researchers argue that the practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of their correctional facility, commonly referred to as prison gerrymandering, distorts representation in government. Hundreds of counties, cities and school boards avoid counting prisoners when drawing local district boundaries, but few states make the adjustment.
What Prison Gerrymandering Distorts
Prisoners differ from other congregate living inhabitants, such as college students and nursing home residents, because they aren’t civically engaged with the communities where they’re living. A state legislator who represents a prison may advocate on behalf of corrections staff but not the incarcerated.
Michael Crespin, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Carl Albert Center, said the pool of eligible voters in districts with large prisons is considerably reduced, giving constituents in those areas more say in state government. When lawmakers redraw maps during next week’s special session, each House district will contain approximately 39,000 people. The ideal Senate district will have just under 82,000 residents.
“It’s a way, for the most part, to show overpopulation in rural and less urban parts of the state,” Crespin said. “Then they get more representation.”
The impact of prison populations is especially evident in areas with multiple correctional facilities. For example, proposed House District 18 contains four prisons with a combined population of approximately 4,300.
If enacted, about one in nine of the residents of the district will be in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. If the state and federal prison population was evenly distributed throughout all House districts, approximately one out of every 160 constituents would be imprisoned.
Due to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, minority communities are most affected by prison-based gerrymandering. Black Oklahomans are four times as likely to be imprisoned than white Oklahomans, according to a report released last month by The Sentencing Project. Their analysis also found that Oklahoma has the second-highest Black imprisonment rate in the U.S., trailing only Wisconsin.
“Prison gerrymandering ensures that the bodies of mostly Black, Indigenous, People of Color in detention are used to bolster the voting strength of the largely white, rural districts where incarceration facilities are located — an average of 100 miles away from the homes of people who are incarcerated — and seals that distribution of power for a decade,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a June news release.
State Sen. George Young, a Democrat who represents an eastern Oklahoma City district where four in five constituents are Black, said he was not familiar with the term prison gerrymandering but sees how prisons could be used to boost political power in rural areas. He said an independent redistricting commission would be best equipped to draw maps that better account for the state’s prison population.
“It favors the Republicans,” Young said. “I think someone else from an unbiased point of view needs to look at what we actually need to do with the prison population when it comes to the Census, not the legislature.”
State Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said in an interview that it would likely be too costly and burdensome for lawmakers to deviate from how the U.S. Census Bureau counts incarcerated people. Twelve states, mostly in the northeast and on the west coast, count prisoners at their last known address — including one that does it at an expense of less than $2 per prisoner.
The Economics of Prison Gerrymandering
The Census Bureau has counted incarcerated people as residents of their correctional facility since at least the mid-1800s. The policy was less consequential before 1970, when fewer than one in 1,000 Americans was behind bars. But as national incarceration rates have soared 500% over the past 40 years, prison populations have become more influential.
Elected state officials use the Census data to redraw congressional, state and local district boundaries once every decade. Census totals also determine how much federal funding state and local governments will receive through the next decade, meaning prison communities may see a larger portion of the hundreds of billions in federal grant dollars allocated to states and municipalities.
Mike Wessler, communications director for the Prison Policy Initiative, said the Census Bureau cites its usual residence rule and cost concerns when defending how it counts incarcerated people. The Bureau estimates it would cost about $250 million to send federal workers to every state correctional facility and survey prisoners about their last known address.
It has been done much less expensively. When Maryland lawmakers voted to end prison gerrymandering in 2010, they spent just $1.60 per prisoner to collect the required data. State officials were able to reassign 87% of the prison population to their last known address in 2013.
Wessler argues that the Census Bureau should treat prisoners like boarding school students, who leave home for a few years and then return home, rather than permanent residents. Two-thirds of prisoners released from custody in 2018 served less than two years before being released, Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows. The average time served from initial admission to release was 2.7 years.
“Even if their sentence is longer than 10 years, they’ll only be at the prison at most for about three years, and then they’ll likely get transferred elsewhere,” Wessler said. “So they’re not even in that particular area for the entire period.
“So it really does illuminate how incarcerated people are treated differently.”
In Oklahoma, a proposed state question would have authorized an independent redistricting commission to obtain data from the state Department of Corrections and count prisoners at their pre-incarceration address. Organizers of Initiative petition 426, or State Question 810 withdrew the petition in July 2020, citing difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andy Moore, executive director of People not Politicians and one of the petition’s organizers, said Oklahoma’s incarcerated population is high enough to sway both redistricting and election results. In April 2020 the state housed nearly 25,000 prisoners, which combined would make up about two-thirds of a House district.
“If you look at voter turnout in a certain area, the election result may be decided by a matter of a few hundred votes or a few thousand votes,” Moore said. “Something like a prison could shift the outcome of an election.”
In 2018, State Rep. David Smith, R-Arpelar, defeated incumbent Democratic Rep. Donnie Condit by just 300 votes to win House District 18’s seat. The current district — which encompassed all of Coale County and portions of Hughes, McIntosh and Pittsburg — contained two prisons in McAlester with a combined population of 1,500.
What Other States Are Doing
The easiest way to end prison-based gerrymandering would be for the Census Bureau to change how it counts prisoners, experts say. But the proposed policy change would not take effect until the 2030 Census.
Twelve states, mostly in the northeast and on the west coast, have independently ended prison gerrymandering through legislation or redistricting commission votes. Montana and Massachusetts have requested that the U.S. Census Bureau count prisoners at their last known address.
States that deviate from the Census Bureau’s policy must compile data on prisoners’ last known address and forward the information to the federal agency, which has created a geocoding tool that processes the information and generates an alternative map. These maps are used solely to redraw district boundaries; state and federal funding for communities with prisons is not impacted.
Oklahoma may have a head start on collecting pre-incarceration address data, but it’s likely not ready to be used in an official capacity. The Department of Corrections surveys prisoners on their pre-incarceration address when they arrive in state custody, but agency spokesman Justin Wolf said the data is self-reported and unverified.
The data collection process can be complicated and labor-intensive. Some prisoners may have been homeless before incarceration, reside out-of-state or refuse to provide an address.
Corrections officials in Nevada have struggled to obtain the necessary data to end prison gerrymandering ahead of the state’s special redistricting session. In late October, Nevada prison officials told state lawmakers that they only had usable addresses for 51% of imprisoned people.
Martinez, who represents a suburban district in Edmond, said it would likely be feasible for lawmakers to count state prisoners at their pre-incarceration address. However, he’s concerned that accounting for federal, mostly out-of-state prisoners housed at facilities in El Reno and Hinton would get complicated.
“Maybe there’s a conversation to be had there, but I think the way a lot of states are doing the prison adjustment, I haven’t seen one that is a great solution at this point,” Martinez said. “To me, it makes the most sense just to stay on the same path as the U.S. Census Bureau.”
There are imperfect methods of accounting for prisoners who don’t report a pre-incarceration address or who previously lived out-of-state.
“If you have 100 people in a prison that you don’t have the address for, and you have 100 districts, each district will get an extra person,” Wessler said. “It basically makes it so all of that representation isn’t counted in a single district.”
Data collection can be challenging but not insurmountable, Wessler said. Maryland initially struggled to collect data when it ended prison gerrymandering in 2012, but now has an address match rate above 90%.
“States are moving forward every day on this, and there haven’t been any other major challenges besides data collection,” Wessler said.
Excluding some prisoners from the count could be a sticking point for lawmakers like Martinez. “It gives me a little bit of heartburn to do that, they’re obviously still human beings and they’re living somewhere,” he said. “They should be counted.”
A Partisan Issue?
Of the 12 states that have changed how prisoners are counted during redistricting, 11 have Democratic governors. The same percentage have Democratic majorities in the legislature.
Oklahoma remains a Republican stronghold at the national and state level, but its population is shifting. The Oklahoma City and Tulsa metropolitan areas have seen the steadiest growth, with populations in the two urban areas combined increasing by 500,000 residents since 2000.
Meanwhile, most rural counties have seen their population stagnate or decline:
- Forty-four of the state’s 77 counties have lost population since 2010.
- Of the 12 rural counties with prisons, only Pottawatomie (4.3%) and Woodward (1.9%) have grown in population since 2010.
- The combined population in Oklahoma's other 10 rural prison counties shrunk by 53%, according to an analysis by The Daily Yonder/Investigate Midwest of 2020 Census data provided by the Census Co-Op.
While urban areas are expanding, rural interests remain well represented at the capital, Crespin with the Carl Albert Center said. He believes it’s unlikely most lawmakers would support a measure that could further boost representation in cities and large suburbs.
“There’s going to be more rural representatives now than after they draw the districts, but there’s a larger number now that’s able to draw them and lock in their advantage,” Crespin said. “No one is going to try and give away that advantage.”
One Republican-led state, Montana, is trying to collect the data necessary to count prisoners at their last known address during this redistricting cycle.
“I think folks want to make sure that every true resident of their community has equal access to their elected officials and equal say in how their elected officials act on their behalf,” Wessler said. “It’s one of the few areas of redistricting that often does receive bipartisan support.”
State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, represents a Southeast Oklahoma district with one prison. While the former probation officer often advocates for state corrections department employees, he doesn’t consider the prisoners at the Howard McLeod Correctional Center to be his constituents.
“If you’re like me and have one prison, 600 or so votes isn’t going to be a major factor,” he said. “But if you have two or three in your district it would be huge.”
Humphrey, who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, said it could be worthwhile for the legislature to reexamine how it counts prisoners in redistricting.
The Local Impact
Facing rapid population decline and unemployment at the height of the 1980s oil bust, Holdenville city leaders invested $34 million to fund construction of the Davis Correctional Facility.
Their bet paid off in 1996, when the Oklahoma Department of Corrections agreed to transfer 1,000 prisoners there. The prison expanded in the early 2000s to reach a maximum capacity of 1,700.
Over the past 25 years, the prison has served as a steady employer and revenue generator in Holdenville. It's also complicated some functions of city government.
While 2020 Census data shows Holdenville’s population at 5,459, the city’s non-incarcerated population is closer to 4,300, mayor John Massad said. City officials do their best to remove the prison population when drawing council lines, Massad said, but the prison population can make it difficult to apply for federal and state grants allocated for communities with less than 5,000 residents.
Changes to how prisoners are counted are often supported at the local level, where large prisons can significantly influence representation in city councils and school boards. Before the city changed how it counts prisoners, more than half of former McAlester city council member Robert Kerr’s constituents were prisoners.
Janes, the small business owner and former state representative candidate who lives in Holdenville, believes ending prison gerrymandering is something state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can get behind.
“This is just one of those things that we need to change to have progress,” she said.
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss
Oklahoma Watch reporter Rebecca Najera contributed to this story.