NOEL KING, HOST:
The U.S. census will happen this year, as it does every 10 years. It's a count of every person living in the country, and state and local officials use that tally to redraw district lines that can change the balance of political power. Now, the Census counts prisoners, too. And that means higher populations in towns with large prisons. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang and Kumari Davarajan from our Code Switch podcast went to a prison town in Wisconsin. Here's Hansi.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Drive past marshlands and dairy farms more than an hour northwest of Milwaukee, and you'll end up in a town some call Wisconsin's prison city. Here in Waupun, about 1 in 4 people is locked up behind bars. That's because this rural, predominately white town is home to three state prisons, including this one, Waupun Correctional Institution. Most of the prisoners inside are people of color.
KENNETH MCGOWAN: OK. My name is Kenneth McGowan, and I'm from Milwaukee.
WANG: McGowan, who is black, was transferred here more than two years ago from another state prison. If he is still locked up here on census day 2020, he will be included in the town of Waupun's official population. That's because ever since the first U.S. census in 1790, the federal government has counted people locked up in prisons and jails not as residents of where they're from, but as residents of where they're incarcerated. These days, some state and local governments use those census numbers to redraw voting districts.
WANG: Do you feel like residents of Waupun, Wis.?
MCGOWAN: Not at all. I don't even consider that there is a community outside these walls.
WANG: But outside lives in neighbor McGowan has never met before, an alderperson, kind of like a city council member for this local voting district.
WANG: Peter Kaczmarski, he's technically representing you. Have you ever heard...
MCGOWAN: Not at all.
MCGOWAN: Not until you came.
WANG: That alderperson, Peter Kaczmarski, who's white, represents this district where more than three-fourths of the constituents are prisoners who cannot vote because they're serving time at Waupun Correctional Institution.
WANG: This was a building I guess you've seen very often or passed by.
PETER KACZMARSKI: Yes, that's right down the street from my house.
WANG: But Kaczmarski says he's never been inside the prison. The town of Waupun's official website says its alderpeople rely on, quote, "input from residents" to, quote, "ensure a citizen-centered process" when, for example, voting on budgets or approving plans to repave streets. But Kaczmarski says getting input from constituents who are behind bars can be difficult.
KACZMARSKI: No one is there for me to knock on the door to say, what do you think?
WANG: And he says it also can be hard to represent people he's never met before.
KACZMARSKI: You almost have to think for them because you don't perhaps have that day-to-day interaction.
ROBERT ALEXANDER: There's no way that he can say what we feel unless he decides to come in and talk to us.
WANG: Robert Alexander, who is black, is another one of Kaczmarski's constituents serving time inside Waupun Correctional. It doesn't sit well with Alexander that he can be counted for political representation in a place he doesn't consider his residence.
ALEXANDER: Forgive me for not having - being able to articulate this the way I want to, but it's almost like your body being used.
WANG: Aleks Kajstura is a legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy group that wants to change how incarcerated people are counted.
ALEKS KAJSTURA: There are lots of places across the country that still suffer from prison gerrymandering.
WANG: The federal government considers prisons the residence of prisoners because the Census Bureau says that's where incarcerated people live and sleep most of the time. But Kajstura argues that policy has become out of date since it was first carried out for the 1790 census.
KAJSTURA: What has changed is the massive scale of incarceration in the United States. Even up until the 1970s, the incarcerated population was low enough that it did not impact redistricting when people were counted in the wrong place.
WANG: This year, Nevada and Washington joined a total of six states with laws requiring that for redistricting after the 2020 census, the Census Bureau's count of prisoners be relocated from where the prisoners are incarcerated to their last home addresses on record.
In Wisconsin, Democratic state lawmakers introduced a similar bill that could lead to major changes to another voting district in Waupun. It's represented by an alderperson who is white and says he's never tried to meet the people inside the prisons who make up close to two-thirds of his district.
RYAN MIELKE: There's no reason the communicate on property I don't have access to.
WANG: Alderperson Ryan Mielke was reelected earlier this year, unopposed with a total of 43 votes. Mielke represents a district that includes Dodge Correctional Institution. A spokesperson for Wisconsin's Department of Corrections says Mielke and other alderpeople are welcome to visit.
WANG: Have you ever entered the facility? Do you know how many people are in the facility that you're representing?
WANG: Have you ever wanted to know 'cause they're residents in your district?
MIELKE: There's no comment.
WANG: Waupun's top administrative officer says the town has no plans to change how it interprets Census Bureau policy. But if Wisconsin's state law changes, prisoners like Robert Alexander may be counted at their last home address for the next round of state and local redistricting. While he's serving time at Waupun Correctional, though, Alexander says his idea of home and where he belongs is in limbo.
ALEXANDER: You don't feel like a resident of anything. You just feel like you're locked up, and wherever they want to send you, they send you. Wherever they want you to be, you be. So it's not a home. You know, you're never in a position where you make this home because you're always planning to exit.
WANG: For Alexander, that won't be until more than a decade from now, just before census day 2030. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Waupun, Wis.
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KING: You can hear more about this story on the Code Switch podcast. Look for the episode called Political Prisoners.
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