Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

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States and counties have been faced with the task of redistricting by early 2022 based on the 2020 census. The process always comes with controversy as each political party attempts to consolidate influence and votes. One aspect that is rarely addressed and has an oversized impact on largely rural states like New Mexico is prison gerrymandering. The process includes prisoners incarcerated in a district that are counted in the population of that district. For New Mexico, where prisons are often located in counties with relatively low populations, counting prisoners who have no residence or roots in the area can have extremely harmful consequences on the influence of districts compared to their population.

New Mexico also has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, New Mexico incarcerates 733 per every 100,000 people, which means that New Mexico locks up more people than any other state per capita.

The national movement against prison gerrymandering began in 2001 when the founders of the Prison Policy Initiative discovered that the sheer size of the prison population was combined with an outdated Census Bureau rule to seriously distort how political decisions are made in this country. 

For rural counties the addition of a large population who is unable to vote has given residents in that county exaggerated power where the prisons are located. Because prisoners are counted for the community they’re incarcerated in, their home communities lose out on population and lose political power.

One such example of the harmful effects of prison gerrymandering can be observed in Lea County. The Prison Policy Initiative reported that the last time the five districts in Lea County were redrawn after the 2010 census, every four District 5 voters in Lea County ended up with as much political influence as every five in the remaining districts. This was because District 5 housed over 1,000 inmates in the Lea County Correctional Facility. Despite not being able to participate in their district’s democratic process or even invest in the community they were incarcerated in, the inmates in Lea County Correctional Facility provided the residents of District 5 with an exaggerated political influence.

There are currently 11 states that have passed legislation to update an otherwise archaic census process to more accurately represent the population of a district. California, Colorado and Illinois are among the states to have passed legislation outright banning prison populations from affecting how districts are mapped. Pressure from advocates on census and prison reform has forced the U.S. to release prison populations earlier to assist counties in reallocating and mapping of districts.

New Mexico may soon have legislation that will address prison gerrymandering.

In November, the independent Citizen Redistricting Committee (CRC) presented a draft of a bill that would use inmates’ last known address — rather than their prison cell — as their location during Census count.

“The CRC believes prison gerrymandering is a legitimate concern,” they wrote in their report to the New Mexico Legislature. “Many people in jails and prisons are represented by elected officials who have no tie to them, their communities, or who are unaware of their interests and needs. Indeed, many inmates are ineligible to vote,” the CRC wrote.