Political Prisoners? In "Prison City," Wisconsin, white elected officials are representing voting districts made up mostly of prisoners. Those prisoners are disproportionately black and brown. Oh, and they can't actually vote.
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Political Prisoners?

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Political Prisoners?

Political Prisoners?

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ROBERT ALEXANDER: Prison kind of gives you that feeling like you on an island up on yourself. You don't feel like a resident of anything. You just feel like you 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.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Some of the most powerless people in the U.S. are prisoners. But prisoners are used to shift how political power is distributed. And that's what we're going to be talking about on this episode of NPR's CODE SWITCH, census watch 2020. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: The character Augustus Hill from the HBO prison drama "Oz" breaks this down way better than I ever will. Here he is explaining how prisoners, the census and political power are all connected. He says, the census counts prisoners as residents of the town they're incarcerated in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OZ")

HAROLD PERRINEAU: (As Augustus Hill) Not where they lived before they got convicted. So what, you say. The state uses these numbers to determine election districts. A senator from a white rural area with a prison can count the inmates as his constituents. Those inmates, who are largely of color, aren't allowed to vote. The senator has no allegiance to them at all. The census is senseless.

MERAJI: So people who agree with that last statement - that the census is senseless when it comes to the way prison population is used to decide certain voting districts - call this prison gerrymandering. And one way of doing this is to use the prison count to fill up a voting district with nonvoters. This can result in local elected officials representing constituents who can't hold them accountable. And in a lot of cases, what this looks like is a white elected official representing disproportionately black and Latinx prisoners who cannot vote.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been reporting on this. He covers the people, power and money behind the 2020 census. He's also a CODE SWITCH alum. We're very proud of him. Welcome home, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Thank you, Shereen. It's good to be home. And it's always good to talk about my favorite subject, the census.

MERAJI: Which is coming at us really fast.

WANG: That's right. It officially starts in January in remote Alaska. But for just about everyone else, there are less than six months until you can start filling out the census. And with a big count comes this complicated question that CODE SWITCH producer Kumari Devarajan and I have been reporting out for the past few months.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: The question is, where should incarcerated people be counted? Are they residents of where they're incarcerated? Or are they residents of where they lived before they were locked up?

MERAJI: These are great questions, and ones that I have to say I haven't thought about, so I'm really looking forward to this.

WANG: Well, we did the work for you...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

WANG: ...Because we talked to researchers, government officials and prisoners. And we learned that the answers to those questions have big implications on how local governments are set up, including how voting districts are drawn.

ALEKS KAJSTURA: There are lots of places across the country that still suffer from prison gerrymandering.

WANG: It can leave prison towns in an identity crisis.

KATHY SCHLIEVE: It changes our demographic makeup, and there is no doubt about that.

WANG: And it has consequences on how incarcerated people are represented politically.

ALEXANDER: Forgive me for not being able to articulate this the way I want to, but it's almost like your body being used.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Hansi, why does the Census Bureau count incarcerated people where they're imprisoned rather than where they lived before they were in prison?

WANG: The Census Bureau has this guideline for determining a person's residence for the census. It's where you live and sleep for most of a year. And so for prisoners, the Census Bureau considers their residence to be the prisons. In other words, they'll be counted where they're incarcerated on census day, which is going to be April 1, 2020.

And the thing to keep in mind for some context is that it's been this way since the very first U.S. census all the way back in 1790. But critics of this policy say it doesn't make sense to count prisoners this way today. And Kumari and I wanted to figure out how this actually plays out on the ground. So we went to Wisconsin.

MERAJI: Which is one of the whitest states in the country. And we also know from the 2010 census that Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate for black men in the United States. In Wisconsin, 1 in 8 black men are in prison.

WANG: Yeah. We visited a small, rural town outside the city of Milwaukee. It's called Waupun. And in this one town, there are three state prisons with a total of more than 3,000 incarcerated people.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DRIVING)

WANG: We just pulled over our car. We're here at an edge of the city Waupun. And there's a sign here that says Waupun - population 10,718. And that includes prisoners. We can see right across this cornfield here they're behind a chain-link fence with barbed wire on top. You can see some inmates walking around a basketball court in gray sweatshirts and sweatpants.

In this town, around 1 out of 4 people is incarcerated.

MERAJI: Wow. One out of four - that's huge.

WANG: We drove past two of the prisons in Waupun, but we actually went inside the oldest one.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

WANG: It's called Waupun Correctional Institution. The first buildings were built before the Civil War, back in the 1850s. It's a maximum security prison. Most of the prisoners here were convicted of violent crimes. And the prison's warden...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just use that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'll put that in my book.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Very good.

WANG: He let us into the visitors area, where we spoke with prisoners, all of whom are studying to get a bachelor's degree.

Do you feel like residents of Waupun, Wis.?

KENNETH MCGOWAN: Not at all. I don't even consider that there is a community outside these walls.

WANG: One of the prisoners we met - his name is Kenneth McGowan (ph). He's black. And before he entered prison in Waupun, he was living in Milwaukee, which is about an hour and a half drive away and 40% black. Compare that to Waupun, which is about 12% black, including the prison population, according to the 2010 census.

MERAJI: So Kenneth is from the city of Milwaukee. And now he's in prison in this town that has very few black people in it.

WANG: Right. And he still has a lot of family back in Milwaukee. He told us his mother, his father, three sisters, nieces and nephews - some he's never met before - are all still back in Milwaukee. But, again, according to Census Bureau policy, Kenneth McGowan is considered a resident of Waupun, even though he hasn't seen much of this town.

What do you see through the windows?

MCGOWAN: It depends. Like, you see the roofs of the houses - like, the shingles, chimneys, the top of trees that's on the other side of the walls.

WANG: You know, all the prisoners we talked to - they told us they don't know much about this town. But they actually play a key part in this community. Remember; they make up more than a quarter of the town's population.

MERAJI: Right.

WANG: And their numbers are included in the official population counts from the Census Bureau that determine how the local government is set up. The prison that they're serving time in is part of one of the town's local voting districts. And each of those districts is represented by a local elected official known as an alderperson.

Who lives down the block - Peter Kaczmarski. He's technically representing you. Have you ever heard...

MCGOWAN: Not at all.

WANG: Yeah.

MCGOWAN: Not until you came.

WANG: We also met another prisoner, Robert Alexander (ph). He's also black and lived in Milwaukee before he was locked up in Waupun.

ALEXANDER: Right now, what you're telling me is, like, brand-new information. So, yeah, I don't know who the alderperson is. You know, I didn't even know that that was the framework here in this city.

WANG: So we walked them through the implications of being counted in Waupun for the census as prisoners and how their numbers are used to draw voting districts for these elected officials. And this all just left them in a state of shock.

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.

MERAJI: Hansi, Robert and Kenneth and all the other prisoners housed in the Waupun Correctional Institution make up how much of this local alderperson's district?

WANG: About 76%.

MERAJI: Seventy-six percent - that is more than I expected.

WANG: This is according to analysis by the research and advocacy group the Prison Policy Initiative. They crunched the numbers, and they found out that about 76% of alderperson Peter Kaczmarski's district is made up of incarcerated people.

MERAJI: And I know they were probably still processing all this information that you were sharing with them, but did you happen to ask Robert or Kenneth if there were any issues they'd flag for Mr. Kaczmarski if they could?

WANG: Yeah, we did get a chance to ask them. Here's Robert Alexander.

ALEXANDER: There are some things that need to be addressed as far as something as simple as showering every day. The things that he has to do and the things that he has to account for may be on a much higher scale than what I'm personally speaking about. I would still like that question addressed because while I'm in this small environment, the things that are important to me are still important to me.

WANG: What could the alderman do to best represent the population in here?

And here's Kenneth McGowan.

MCGOWAN: 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 water that we drink in here is not the same as out there. And for me, I think it's not fair.

MERAJI: So these prisoners want pretty basic things. They want clean drinking water, and they'd like to have a shower every day.

WANG: Yeah.

MERAJI: You did talk to a couple of the alderpeople in Waupun.

WANG: Do you know how many people are in the facility that you're representing?

RYAN MIELKE: No.

WANG: Have you ever wanted to know because they're residents in your district?

MIELKE: There's no comment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: After the break, we're going to hear more from Waupun's elected officials, whose districts are predominantly made up of prisoners who can't vote and are disproportionately African American. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

WANG: Hansi.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Hansi, you went with CODE SWITCH producer Kumari Devarajan to Waupun, Wis., to see firsthand what it looks like when voting districts are mostly made up of prisoners who can't vote.

Waupun is home to three prisons, more than 3,000 incarcerated people. And those prisoners are disproportionately black and Latinx. And we know from the census that Waupun is close to 85% white. But keep in mind that number factors in the prison population, so the small town outside the walls of those three prisons is even whiter.

WANG: And we did get a tour beyond the walls of the prison where Robert Alexander and Kenneth McGowan are serving time.

SCHLIEVE: You can see it spans an entire city block easily, or more. The community has sort of been built up around it.

WANG: We just passed by the library.

SCHLIEVE: We just passed by the library.

WANG: We drove around with the city administrator, Kathy Schlieve, who's white. Kathy Schlieve's job is to keep this town running by carrying out decisions made by the mayor and the alderpeople. So she knows her way around Waupun.

And what struck us during this tour was just how physically embedded the prisons are in these neighborhoods in Waupun. People's homes are just across the street from the prisons. And the home that Kathy Schlieve grew up in was near a prison.

SCHLIEVE: I grew up down the street, by the way. My father was a prison guard. My grandfather was a person guard. That is what brought them to this area. And so it's just kind of always been a part of normal for my family.

WANG: You know, a lot of people we met outside the prisons have these connections to them because the prison system is one of the town's main employers. The three prisons have been a main driver of Waupun's economy for decades. But Kathy Schlieve told us city officials - they see a cost to this, a trade-off to having incarcerated people included in the town's population count.

SCHLIEVE: It really dilutes the socioeconomic profile of the community. So our post-secondary attainment looks different than maybe what it is for the average citizen here, as does things like our average household income. So even how we think about recruiting retail, it becomes a much bigger challenge when the data's not depicting the reality of the community that's out spending the dollars.

MERAJI: So it sounds like Kathy wouldn't mind erasing the prison population to make Waupun seem like a more affluent, better-educated, whiter community.

WANG: Well, in fact, the city commissioned a study that was published in 2009. City officials - they wanted to produce a profile that shows what the town would look like if you removed the prison population. It's part of this ongoing rebranding effort...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Did you know Waupun is known as the city of sculpture? Let's go check more out.

WANG: ...That's been trying to change Waupun from being known as prison city to the city of sculpture.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Quite a change.

WANG: Well, there's a pamphlet about the bronze sculptures scattered around Waupun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Is home to the iconic "End Of The Trail" sculpture, a fitting tribute to the native American Indian.

WANG: And if you go on the town's website, you'll see a newer tagline - naturally adventurous - with a photo of a family biking through a local marsh.

MERAJI: Naturally adventurous. Was there any mention of the three prisons in town?

WANG: No, I couldn't find any mention of a prison on the homepage. But the thing is no city official that we know of is calling for these prisons to be closed. But there is an effort to keep them in the background as they try to attract more tourists, more business developers. And what you have is this uneasy relationship playing out, especially when you take a closer look at how the local government is set up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIE NICKEL: All right, good evening. Welcome to the city of Waupun's Special Common Council meeting.

WANG: Kumari and I went to city hall to see the local government officials in action. This is at a common council meeting, where they usually vote on budgets, you know, plans to repave the city streets or improve the sewer system. The mayor, who is a former prison guard - she was there. And so was alderperson Peter Kaczmarski, who represents the district that includes the prison where Robert Alexander and Kenneth McGowan are locked up. But Peter Kaczmarski isn't the only alderperson representing a district made up primarily of prisoners.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIELKE: I, Ryan Mielke.

NICKEL: Kevin, Julia Lucten (ph) is alderman...

WANG: You know, during this meeting, Ryan Mielke, another alderperson, was getting sworn in again. He's been on the common council for more than seven years now. And he had just been reelected to represent a district with one of the prisons in town.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So help me God. State I will.

MIELKE: I will.

NICKEL: Congratulations.

MIELKE: Thank you.

WANG: If you go back on the city's website, it says that alderpeople rely on, quote, "input from residents" to, quote, "ensure a citizen-centered process" when they're making decisions on behalf of everyone in Waupun. But Ryan Mielke, who represents prisoners at Dodge Correctional Institution - he told us he has never visited that prison before.

MIELKE: There's no reason to communicate on property I don't have access to.

WANG: Have you ever entered the facility?

MIELKE: No.

WANG: Do you know how many people are in the facility that you're representing?

MIELKE: No.

WANG: Have you ever wanted to know because they're residents in your district?

MIELKE: There's no comment.

MERAJI: What percentage of Ryan Mielke's voting district is made up of prisoners?

WANG: About 61%, according to the Prison Policy Initiative's analysis.

MERAJI: And he's never attempted to meet any of the people in the prison that make up 61% of his district.

WANG: Yeah. And having mostly prisoners who can't vote in his district - that means it's easier for him to win elections compared to other alderpeople in other districts without prisoners.

MERAJI: Right.

WANG: You know, this year, alderperson Ryan Mielke was reelected with just 43 votes.

MERAJI: I'm also curious about the other alderperson that we brought up who represents Robert Alexander and Kenneth McGowan and all the other prisoners in the Waupun Correctional Institution. Did you have a chance to talk to him?

WANG: Yeah. That's Peter Kaczmarski, and he told us he has never visited Waupun Correctional Institution either. It's one of the prisons in his district.

This was a building, I guess, you've seen very often or passed by.

PETER KACZMARSKI: Yes. It's right down the street from my house.

MERAJI: Down the street from his house, but he's never been inside.

WANG: Right. Peter Kaczmarski told us that he's serving his 10th year as a alderperson. He told us he takes that position very seriously. You know, one year, he lost the election, and he says he went to every common council meeting for two years.

MERAJI: OK, that's dedication.

WANG: Right. And he says from his experience, compared to other residents in his district, representing constituents who are behind bars is very different.

KACZMARSKI: No one is there for me to knock on the door to say, what do you think?

WANG: And he said it 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.

MERAJI: That's quite a statement - that he has to think for the residents of his district who are in prison. I am very curious what they would think of that.

WANG: Well, we asked Robert Alexander.

MERAJI: Oh, good.

ALEXANDER: There's no way that he can say what we feel unless he decides to come in and talk to us.

MERAJI: Well, you and our producer Kumari Devarajan got into the prison. How hard was it?

WANG: It took a few emails and phone calls that Kumari made, plus a background check. But we figured it out over about two months. And, you know, Kumari actually asked a Wisconsin Department of Corrections spokesperson, Clare Hendricks, about this issue.

KUMARI DEVARAJAN, BYLINE: For someone who represents the prison population on common council, city council, any message for them?

CLARE HENDRICKS: If you want to come see what it's about, we're welcome to have you. Just work with us, you know? We have state senators and representatives come through a number of our institutions pretty regularly. We're welcome to it.

WANG: You know, when I was researching, I did find out about this community relations board that brings together prison officials and city officials in Waupun a few times a year to discuss prison issues. I found out about it through the prison's annual report. And neither alderperson we talked to is currently on that board. But you know who is on it?

MERAJI: Who?

WANG: Kathy Schlieve, the city administrator.

MERAJI: She's the one who took you on that tour. She talked about how the census counting prisoners was really making her town less marketable. Yes, Kathy Schlieve - I remember her.

WANG: Right. She also said that prisoners should still be counted as residents of Waupun, in part because the town is providing services for the prisoners. She pointed to the ambulances and police and fire department services that the prisons rely on.

SCHLIEVE: What I would say is purely because we are providing those protective services and infrastructure pieces, I think it's appropriate as it is. I think we will follow the letter of the law.

MERAJI: What does Wisconsin state law say about this?

WANG: Well, the law is complicated, so I called up the Prison Policy Initiative. They're the main advocacy and research group on prisoners in the census. They want to change the way prisoners are counted. And the group's legal director, Aleks Kajstura, told me this is not an easy thing to do in Waupun.

KAJSTURA: Waupun was kind of put in a bind because Waupun is in Wisconsin, where there's an attorney general opinion that concluded that the counties and cities are required to base their districts on census data pretty much no matter how absurd the result.

MERAJI: So if I'm hearing this right, a former Wisconsin attorney general wrote an opinion saying that in the state of Wisconsin, you have to use the census count for redistricting purposes, period.

WANG: Right.

MERAJI: OK.

WANG: And I asked Waupun city officials about this. They told me they're interpreting Census Bureau policy to mean that they have to count prisoners in their community. Some other prison towns, though - they have come up with ways to spread out the number of prisoners across districts.

You know, the thing to remember here is that the federal government has been counting prisoners like this - where they're incarcerated - for the census since 1790.

KAJSTURA: What has changed is just the massive scale of incarceration in the United States. So what worked for the country in 1790 just doesn't work anymore. 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: And now some states are trying to change that, in part because prison populations have gotten so big over the decades.

MERAJI: Which states?

WANG: Laws have been passed in California, Delaware, Maryland, New York and most recently in Nevada and Washington state, and maybe soon in Wisconsin. In September, some state lawmakers introduced a bill. And there's also this ongoing lawsuit in Connecticut led by the NAACP chapter there all trying to end what some call prison gerrymandering in state and local redistricting. These are efforts to require prisoners to be counted at their last recorded address before they were in prison.

MERAJI: Are there any other populations that are treated this way? This whole time we've been talking about how the Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of where they're incarcerated. Who else gets counted like that?

WANG: Well, people who are in immigration detention centers. They're counted as residents of those ICE facilities. Whoever is in an ICE facility on census day - April 1, 2020 - they'll be counted where those facilities are, according to Census Bureau policy. And there are other groups in other complicated living situations when it comes to the census - for example, college students living away from home, including international students, and U.S. troops deployed overseas.

MERAJI: Yeah, but there's a difference there. College students who are 18 and older and are American citizens - they can vote (laughter).

WANG: Right.

MERAJI: So can U.S. troops who are 18 or older and are U.S. citizens. So that's different than prisoners who live in 48 states in this country.

WANG: Yeah. And that's part of what makes this issue of where to count prisoners so contentious. You know, for the most part, this issue has been split largely along party lines. Most supporters who want to change the way prisoners are counted are Democrats, while Republicans generally want to keep things the way they are.

MERAJI: Interesting.

WANG: And this would mean that rural, predominately white prison towns get their population numbers boosted by prison numbers made up disproportionately by black and Latinx prisoners.

You know, it's going to be interesting after the 2020 census when some state and local governments start redrawing their voting districts. You know, we'll see exactly what happens in those places. They'll start moving prisoner numbers away from these prison towns and back to their last home addresses on record.

MERAJI: It sounds like you're going to have to go out and do some reporting and update us because I want to know how that looks.

WANG: I'm always game for reporting out the census.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

WANG: So let's do that.

MERAJI: Hansi Lo Wang, census nerd.

WANG: Forever, for life. And, you know, advocates I talked to say what's probably going to happen is not going to be a smooth process. But they say it will be more correct than counting prisoners at the prisons.

MERAJI: Did the prisoners you spoke with, Robert or Kenneth, have strong feelings or any feelings about where they're counted - whether that's in the prison they're incarcerated in or back at home where they lived before they were in prison?

WANG: You know, it's complicated for many of them. You know, many incarcerated people - after they're released, they don't end up going back to the same places where they were living before they were locked up. These are people who have been uprooted for years, some for decades.

MERAJI: Right.

WANG: You know, take Robert Alexander, for example.

Mr. Alexander, do you feel like a resident of Waupun, Wis.?

ALEXANDER: No. It's like prison kind of gives you that feeling like you on an island up on yourself.

WANG: Yeah.

He's at Waupun Correctional Institution, and he's not expected to be released from prison until 2030, which means, you know, for now, this idea of home and where he belongs is really in limbo.

ALEXANDER: You don't feel like a resident of anything. You just feel like you 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. He covers the people, power and money behind the 2020 census.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And that's our show. For all the 2020 census updates, follow Hansi Lo Wang on Twitter @hansilowang. And while you're at it, you can follow us on Twitter, too. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. And you know we love hearing from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can send us your tricky questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. And don't forget to sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch. And don't forget to subscribe to our podcast if you haven't already. Subscribing is free, so go ahead and do it. It doesn't cost any money.

And this episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and edited by Leah Donnella and me. And I want to give a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Gene Demby, Jess Kung, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Sami Yenigun, Adrian Florido and Steve Drummond. Our intern is Angela Vang.

And I want to take just a brief moment to acknowledge Kat Chow. She's been a member of the CODE SWITCH team for the past six years. She was here from the very beginning. But starting this month, she's off to do other things. Good luck, Kat. We're going to miss you.

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji, and Gene's back next week. Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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