Montana redistricting commission ends prison gerrymandering

The approximately 3,000 state correctional facility inmates will be allocated to the districts where they live.
The State of Montana Department of Corrections Montana Women’s Prison is seen in Billings, Mont. on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

An independent redistricting commission tasked with redrawing Montana’s political boundaries finalized a new plan that will count thousands of prisoners based on their home addresses, rather than at the correctional facilities in which they are incarcerated.

The commission voted this weekend to approve new legislative district lines, making Montana the last state to redraw maps following the 2020 U.S. Census. Commission chair Maylinn Smith voted with the two Democratic members of the panel to adopt final maps.

The commission’s plan allocates the approximately 3,000 inmates in state correctional facilities back to the districts where they live. Data provided by the Census Bureau counts those prisoners as residents of the correctional facilities where they are being held.

Many states count those prisoners the same way, even though they do not have a right to vote in the districts where those correctional facilities are located — a practice critics dub “prison gerrymandering.”

Those critics say prison gerrymandering unfairly overweights districts with corrections facilities, which tend to be rural and conservative. All five Montana commissioners voted to end the practice.

“Montana’s unanimous and bipartisan decision to count incarcerated people at their true homes is an exclamation point at the end of a decade of progress toward ending prison gerrymandering and ensuring all communities have an equal voice in their government,” said Mike Wessler, a spokesman for the Prison Policy Initiative.

Montana is the 17th state to end prison gerrymandering in recent years, according to a tally maintained by the Prison Policy Initiative. The roster of states that have nixed the practice includes deep blue states such as Washington, California and New York, and one perennially red state, Tennessee.

Prison gerrymandering in Montana disproportionately impacted Native American communities, according to Native American rights groups. Native Americans make up about 20% of incarcerated men and 30% of incarcerated women in Montana, though they are just 10% of the overall population.