New law changes how prisoners in Maine are counted in the U.S. Census

Prisoners in Maine are on their way to better representation.

Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill into law last month that will change how prisoners in the state are accounted for in the U.S. Census.

Maine inmates will now be counted toward the population of their most recent address before they were taken into custody. If the inmate had an out-of-state address or no address on record, they will not be counted.

The law took effect immediately but the impact won’t be noticeable until the 2030 census – or really until 2031 when the state’s Reapportionment Commission starts to redraw the maps, said Emily Cook, a spokesperson for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.

The state’s 1,766 inmates are currently counted toward the population of the town and county where the prison is – a policy that voting rights advocates call “prison gerrymandering.”

The change could shift some state House districts in 2031, particularly around Warren, where the Maine State Prison is, and in the Windham and Charleston areas, according to Mary-Erin Casale, a spokesperson for Maine House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, who sponsored the legislation.

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As for any impact on Maine’s two congressional districts, that’s less clear.

“There could be a change, but there are too many variables to consider what that change would be,” said Casale.

There was no written testimony submitted against the legislation.

ARTIFICIALLY INFLATED LEGISLATIVE DISTRICTS

Most of Maine’s inmates are held at the Maine State Prison, where the general population totaled 739 people as of July 10, according to weekly Maine Department of Corrections data. That’s about 1.8% of the total Knox County population of 40,607.

Maine Correctional Facility in Windham has 297 incarcerated people out of Cumberland County’s population of 305,231.

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“No longer will there be artificially inflated legislative districts that don’t accurately reflect the community members that the U.S. Census is striving for,” said Casale. “For the next round of reapportionment, the legislative district in Warren will have the same population as the legislative district in Washburn. And that’s just fair.”

Prisoners serve an average of 2.7 years, according to a 2018 estimate from the U.S. Department of Justice. Redistricting occurs every 10 years, which means on average inmates are included in prison populations for years after they have been released.

“Counting everyone from prison in one place where they’re only living temporarily, fails to consider their interests and demographics in their actual community,” said Mike Wessler, communications director for the Prison Policy Initiative.

SHORT-TERM FIX

Maine is the 17th state to adopt some level of prison redistricting rules, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a  research nonprofit in Massachusetts.

But it’s just a short-term fix, Wessler said, and the nonprofit is asking the U.S. Census Bureau to change how it counts all incarcerated people, not just those in Maine, before the 2030 census.

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“Fundamentally, this is a problem about representation in government. Each person is supposed to have an equal say in their government,” he said. “Because the prison population is counted in one legislative district, it gives people who live close to prisons a louder voice in government, at the expense of every other community in the state.”

The new law also lines up with how Maine handles voter registration in prisons. Maine is one of only two states that allows incarcerated people to vote by absentee ballot in elections. Their registrations are tied to their pre-incarceration address. Now, incarcerated people’s voting addresses and residency with the U.S. Census will be the same.

“The law does not change any individual’s right to vote, or ability to access their ballot,” Cook said. “This helps keep residents connected to their home communities.”

Lawmakers will be held even more accountable to their incarcerated constituents, said Joseph Jackson, executive director of The Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

“We most definitely support this (law),” he said. “We actually wish it went a little farther, and feel like it’s a step forward for incarcerated individuals and their families.”

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