RACINE COUNTY - They cannot leave the prison walls. They cannot vote. But the question remains, should prisoners be counted when the county draws new voting districts?
The way Racine County has its county supervisor voting districts drawn now, people in prison or youthful corrections are counted as part of the population of a district. Now, with new 2010 census numbers, the county has a chance to change that as the board looks at creating new district boundaries.
It's an issue that was brought up Wednesday at a county reapportionment meeting and that a Massachusetts nonprofit has been watching closely for the past 10 years in an attempt to create fair voting districts.
For instance, when one voting district includes the population of people in prison, then the votes of the people in that district mean more, said Peter Wagner, the executive director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that focuses on prisons' effects on census data and voting districts.
Each district is supposed to represent an equal share of the county. But according to data from the 2000 census, 17 percent of the population in Racine County's 13th county supervisory district were incarcerated in the Racine Correctional Institution in Sturtevant, Wagner said.
It had a population of more than 1,000 then and it had 1,573 inmates in 2010, according to figures in the institute's 2010 annual report.
Therefore, when people in that district voted for a county supervisor, their votes counted for more.
"Every 83 people who live near the prison are represented on county issues as if they were 100 people," Wagner said.
It can also affect Assembly districts, Wagner said. But congressional districts are so large, it doesn't play much of a role, he said.
County Supervisor Ken Lumpkin, whose district includes the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility, 1501 Albert St., is concerned that counting the inmates at the facility unfairly affects his district.
They have 450 beds at the youthful offender facility and the population can vary.
"It's unfair they are utilized in the census count," Lumpkin said. "They are not active participants in the community."
Robert Miller, the chairman of the county's Special Committee Regarding Reapportionment, which is responsible for creating new boundaries, said prisoners deserve to be counted somewhere. He said the county could look at making the prison's district larger so more voters are in the district or the county could divide it in half so the prison is split between two districts. But he didn't know if all of the options would be legal and he directed the question to the county's corporation counsel.
The county needs to determine the districts by the end of May.