In Dr. Tricia Rose’s Lecture “How Does Structural Racism Works in the Era of ‘Racial Equality’,” Rose defines structural racism in the U.S. as the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. Structural racism appears in every aspect of United States’ society, from education to housing, and each of these aspects connect on multiple axes. The criminal justice system and the United States’ “democratic” electoral system is one of these connections. As well,he structure of the United States’ criminal justice system contributes to a system in which African Americans tend to have less economic and political power than their white counterparts. This essay will argue that the structural racism embedded in criminal justice and electoral systems of the United States, and the connections between the systems, create a cycle of oppression for African Americans in the criminal justice system. This essay will discuss these issues through an exploration of prison gerrymandering and its consequences in Waupun, Wisconsin.
Waupun, Wisconsin, located about an hour and a half drive outside of Milwaukee is home to three correctional facilities: Dodge Correctional Institution, Waupun Correctional Institution, and Burke Correctional Center. For this reason, locals and people nationally refer to Waupun as “Prison City.” For generations, these correctional institutions have provided employment and fueled the economy of the city. In the city with a population of 11,269, there are 1460 staff members in all the correctional facilities combined. This means around 13% of the city’s population work in the correctional institutions. While the city and its residents profit off of the lives of the incarcerated peoples, they strip those same people of their most fundamental rights.
With its small population and multiple correctional facilities, Waupun suffers from intense “prison gerrymandering.” Prison gerrymandering refers to the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated peoples in the population of the city or district in which they live while incarcerated, and not in the community in which they lived before their incarceration. As a result, cities with large correctional facilities, such as Waupun that tend to be in rural, almost exclusively white, and conservative-leaning are electorally overrepresented. Conversely, the communities that incarcerated individuals come from tend to be urban, primarily communities of color, and liberal-leaning are electorally underrepresented.
The problems created by prison gerrymandering are further exacerbated in 48 out of 50 states in which incarcerated peoples are disenfranchised; once convicted of a felony, incarcerated individuals lose their right to vote while incarcerated and oftentimes after their release. Since most incarcerated people are people of color, and so are most people who are disenfranchised. This means that not only are districts made of primarily black and brown residents not getting the representation they deserve, the people who make up those districts have no representation in government. In Wisconsin, the state disenfranchises 1 out of 9 African Americans compared to 1 out of 50 Wisconsinites. This severe prison gerrymandering and disenfranchisement is part of the cyclical system of structural racism that decreases African Americans’ political and economic power.
Waupun is a prime example of how prison gerrymandering exploits African Americans to increase the region’s political power while disregarding not only African Americans fundamental rights, but also basic necessities of life. As Robert Alexander, an incarcerated person in the Waupun Correctional Facility says, prison gerrymandering and disenfranchisement is “almost like your body being used.” In two alderpeople’s districts in the city, the prison population makes up the majority of the population of their district. In district 2, represented by alderperson Peter Kaczmarski, incarcerated peoples make up 63% of the population. In district 3, represented by alderperson Ryan Mielkle, incarcerated peoples make up 79% of the population. Since the incarcerated peoples cannot vote, it makes it much easier for certain alderpeople to win their elections and end up representing fewer people than their districts’ population figures may suggest, and in turn overrepresent their voting-eligible constituents. In the last election cycle, alderperson Mielkle won his bid for reelection with only 43 votes. Since the people in the correctional facilities cannot vote, their representatives ignore their basic needs. When asked what he would say to alderperson Kaczmarski if he could, Kenneth McGowan, an incarcerated person at the Waupun Correctional Facility, said “The drinking water in prison is horrible. I’m talking about you have to have your light on in your cell when you’re drinking water because when you push the button, sometimes it comes out brown.” The local and national government strip incarcerated black and brown people of their basic necessities for life and dignity, catching them in a cycle of structural oppression..
With the 2020 census just around the corner, discussing prison gerrymandering and its consequences is vital. The census has counted incarcerated peoples this way since the first census in 1790. However, after decades of mass incarceration and the prison population boom, prison gerrymandering and felony disenfranchisement and their consequences threaten the fundamental ideals such as liberty and equality stated by our founding documents and common narrative. If the legislature does not address prison gerrymandering and its consequences, they will remain the same for at least the next decade.
“Criminal Disenfranchisement Laws Across the United States.” Brennan Center for Justice. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/criminal-disenfranchisement-laws-across-united-states.
Gauthier, Jason. “Overview – History – U.S. Census Bureau.” Overview – History – U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/overview/.
Initiative, Prison Policy. “The Problem.” Prison Gerrymandering Project. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/impact.html.
“Political Prisoners?” NPR. NPR, October 2, 2019. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/764809210?storyId=764809210?storyId.
“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Waupun City, Wisconsin.” Census Bureau QuickFacts. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/waupuncitywisconsin.
2019. Doc.Wi.Gov. https://doc.wi.gov/DataResearch/DataAndReports/WCIInstitutionalFactSheet.pdf.