Prison inmates at issue in redrawing political districts

Kenneth J. Cooper | 6/8/2011, 9:31 a.m.

Until 2000, prisoners in Massachusetts were allowed to vote, and state law makes it clear that their legal residences are their former homes, not the correctional facilities where they are housed, Wright said.

“A prison cell is not a residence,” Wagner said.

Wright and Wagner pointed out that Gardner in 2001 stopped counting inmates in the state prison there when drawing city council districts so that the eastern side of the city, where MCI-Gardner is located, would not have undue clout.

Wagner said this year the towns of Lancaster and Harvard have requested special state legislation to make similar adjustments.

Without an amendment to the state constitution, the redistricting committee cannot add prison inmates to the legislative districts where they last lived, even if corrections officials could compile and sort their addresses in time.

Wright recommended the Legislature pass a resolution calling for the Census Bureau to change the way it counts prisoners, an adjustment that would come too late to affect the current round of redistricting. She also urged the Legislature to start the long process of amending the constitution in case the federal agency does not take action.

Wagner said it would be better for Massachusetts and the rest of the country if the Census Bureau did change its method of counting prisoners.

“I think the ideal place for a fix to happen is at the Census Bureau,” Wagner said in an interview. “It would be easier on states and local governments if they did it.”