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Dismantling Prison Gerrymandering & Removing Barriers to Fair Representation

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Photo of Samantha Osaki

By Samantha Osaki, a 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by The Lavan Harris Family. Samantha is hosted by the ACLU Voting Rights Project.

I fight for the representational rights of people who are incarcerated, because fair maps are at the heart of our democracy—and to move the needle on social justice, we must ensure that all voices carry equal weight.

I was inspired to work at the intersection between voting rights and criminal legal reform because as a Yonsei (fourth-generation) Japanese-American, I carry the legacy of a different form of incarceration: one that targeted Japanese Americans during World War II.

My grandfather and his family lost everything but what they could carry into the horse stalls and high-security desert camps where they were imprisoned for four years. After my grandfather was released, he struggled to find work due to the stigma of his race and for being a so-called “No-No Boy” (conscientious objector). The loss my family experienced has reverberated through the generations, and I work to help break cycles of systemic injustice for all families.

Scans of Tule Lake incarceration records from the National Archive, courtesy of the author. Left: The first page of the register, with a handwritten note indicating that an asterisk next to an individual’s name means they were included due to facility shortages, not disloyalty. Right: The author’s grandfather, Satoshi Osaki, was considered disloyal and is listed without an asterisk.

Prison gerrymandering is a complex issue, but at the heart of it, it’s about the right of people who are incarcerated to be counted like everyone else: as members of communities they call home and that represent their interests. When people are counted as “residents” of their prison cells, it results in a population skew that ensures the bodies of mostly Black, Indigenous, people of color in prison are used to bolster the voting strength of the largely white, rural districts where incarceration facilities are located. This process touches the lives of millions by diluting the voting strength of home communities. Because redistricting happens only once per decade, this unfair distribution of power continues long after the people who are incarcerated return home. The racial injustice of this practice is clear, leading many scholars to liken prison gerrymandering to the Three-Fifths Compromise.

The loss my family experienced has reverberated through the generations, and I work to help break cycles of systemic injustice for all families.

The most effective way to end prison gerrymandering would be through national legislation or a policy change at the U.S. Census Bureau mandating that people who are incarcerated be counted at their homes. Short of that, state legislatures and redistricting commissions may work with state departments of corrections to ensure that people who are incarcerated are fairly counted at their homes.

At the ACLU Voting Rights Project (VRP), I work with ACLU affiliates across the nation to advocate that redistricting commissioners and legislators end prison gerrymandering. Much of this work involves raising public awareness by speaking before coalitions and leveraging media outlets but may also include litigation. Most recently, my team submitted an amicus brief in Adkins v. Virginia Redistricting Commission, a lawsuit that attempted to overturn Virginia’s law ending prison gerrymandering. This case is a stark reminder that vigilance is necessary, even after laws ending the practice are passed.

Because redistricting happens only once per decade, this unfair distribution of power continues long after the people who are incarcerated return home.

In addition to my own project, I have had the opportunity to integrate myself fully within the incredible VRP family. Last November, I helped to ensure that lawfully cast votes were counted during the 2020 presidential election (Trump v. Boockvar, Hotze v. Hollins) and now I am working on active cases in Texas and Wisconsin challenging voter suppressive laws.

During my second year as a Fellow, I hope to continue my legislative advocacy to end prison gerrymandering in states including New Mexico, as well as continue to root myself more firmly at the intersection of criminal legal reform and voting rights by helping to expand my team’s rights restoration work.

To learn more about Samantha’s work to end prison gerrymandering, visit her Fellow profile here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow