'Prison gerrymandering' endures in Nevada, despite law

'Prison gerrymandering' endures in Nevada, despite law
FILE - In this July 11, 2018, file photo, a sign marks the entrance to Ely State Prison, the location of Nevada's execution chamber near Ely, Nev. Two years after banning a practice known as prison gerrymandering, Nevada will count almost half of its prison population in districts where they're incarcerated, rather than at their previous addresses. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

By SAM METZ AP / Report for America

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Incomplete demographic information that Nevada prison officials provided lawmakers preparing to redraw the state’s political maps is prompting questions and frustration two years after the Legislature passed a law to count incarcerated residents in their home communities during the once-in-a-decade redistricting process.

The data gap suggests Nevada’s efforts to end so-called “prison gerrymandering” are far from complete as lawmakers prepare to implement a recently passed ban of the practice for the first time later this year.

“Here we are, in 2021, with half of the people that we aren’t being able to identify. That’s problematic to me because I would like to see everyone counted,” state Sen. Roberta Lange, a Las Vegas Democrat, said in a Wednesday hearing.

Most states count inmates as part of the population where their prisons are located. Detractors say the practice, known as “prison gerrymandering,” artificially inflates the population and voting power of rural, mostly white prison towns at the expense of minority communities disproportionately incarcerated. In Nevada, where 51% of the population is white, 58% of the prison population is Black, Latino, Native or of Asian descent.

“It’s taking people who would otherwise count for representation in their own communities and moving them to areas that aren’t just far away from home, but also look very different,” said Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Certain areas are essentially getting a windfall because they happen to house prison facilities.”

The extent to which people in Nevada prisons are reallocated has significant implications on the population and, in turn, voting power communities across the state will have through the next decade.

Roughly 20% of the population in rural Pershing County resides in the Lovelock Correctional Center and a 2019 law requires the prison’s 1,345 inmates be counted at their “last known address” when lawmakers redraw the state’s political maps.

Prison officials provided addresses for less than half of Lovelock’s inmates. Though far from complete, reallocating 644 to their home communities shrunk Pershing County’s population by 9.7%.

Republican Pete Goicoechea’s state Senate district includes three of Nevada’s seven correctional centers. Reallocating about half of the prison population to pre-incarceration addresses removed 3,804 residents, 2.4% of his district’s population.

He said the law accounts for many inmates not having addresses and thinks it makes sense for some, for example those serving life sentences, to count prison addresses. He considers inmates’ interests when voting on budgets for the prison system, but sees them differently than other constituents.

“Let’s be honest, most of them, at the point they’re incarcerated, they’re felons and don’t have the ability to vote. I don’t go in to campaign in the prisons. You wouldn’t because it really doesn’t have an impact on the electorate,” Goicoechea said.

The Census Bureau reported in August that 19,575 Nevada residents lived in correctional facilities for adults, which includes people in jails and federal prisons from Nevada and other states. Nevada’s inmate reallocation law only applies to state prisons. Officials initially sent 12,214 address records in February.

Redistricting staff worked with the Department of Corrections to use as many of the addresses as possible, but said Wednesday that only about half had the needed information. Only 6,275 people — about 51% of prison officials’ initial submission — were reallocated to their “last known residential address” per the 2019 law.

“There’s a significant number of inmates who will remain counted at the prison site either because there’s insufficient evidence that they were Nevada residents before incarceration or insufficient evidence of their address in general,” legislative attorney Asher Killian said.

Nevada is one of 11 states that reallocates inmates to their pre-prison addresses during redistricting. State law requires prison officials “compile the last known residential address of each offender immediately before the offender was sentenced” and send the information to the state demographer.

Prison officials turned over a complicated and admittedly incomplete dataset that included four categories of inmate addresses noting shelters, family addresses and planned parole addresses that they didn’t know how to interpret.

Out of the 12,214, redistricting staff verified 5,592 previous addresses and 683 parole address of confirmed Nevada residents. Department of Corrections spokesperson Teri Vance said race and ethnicity data was provided, but legislative staff say they cannot use it because it was reported differently than census data.

Department of Corrections economist Alejandra Livingston said language barriers, substance abuse, unwillingness to provide addresses and the fact that many people lived in temporary residences before being incarcerated made it difficult to gather addresses.

Prison staff, she said, drew from a database that primarily uses information people self-report during their intake and is used primarily for other purposes, like mail-forwarding or escape investigations. Gaps were present for inmates serving long sentences because the department only recently switched from a decades-old database to one from the Canadian firm Syscon.

Lawmakers asked what prison officials did upon learning about the data gaps. Livingston said staff requested missing information from inmates about their last known addresses, assigned someone to look through hard-copy files and began efforts to train staff in data-entry.

Vance, the department spokesperson, acknowledged problems and prison officials were training staff and reviewing address records to reach full compliance with the law in the future.

“Our Information Technology Division will streamline the number of address types currently available by default; then, training will be provided to staff so that they aware of how to utilize the options and regarding the importance of encouraging inmates to provide as accurate information as possible,” she said.

But unlike in California, where the director of the state’s redistricting database told NPR she started working on reallocation seven years ago, Nevada’s eleventh-hour efforts to gather missing addresses are unlikely to matter by the time lawmakers redraw political maps later this year.

Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.