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Report shows where prison gerrymandering in Connecticut hurt the most

Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood, which has one of the city's highest incarceration rates.
CT Mirror
Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood, which has one of the city's highest incarceration rates.

A government agent once described the area around Clay Arsenal in the 1930s as a slum “now mainly occupied by Negros.” The predominantly Black Hartford neighborhood sloped toward the river, subject to floods. The community was congested. Agriculture was scattered. It was considered a “Hazardous” place for mortgage lenders to invest their money, the worst grade possible for any locality.

With that description, the area was effectively red-lined.

Over 90 years later, the now predominantly Latino and Black neighborhood has one of the highest incarceration rates in Connecticut, according to a new report.

People incarcerated in Connecticut disproportionately come from Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven — four of the state’s most populous cities, where people of color are heavily concentrated.

These were among several revelations in the report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a New England-based policy think tank, titled “Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration in Connecticut.” The study provided an exhaustive look into the previous stomping grounds of Connecticut’s incarcerated people, who until last year were counted as living in the towns where their correctional facilities were — a practice known as "prison gerrymandering."

“No community is immune from the invasiveness of the criminal legal system,” Emily Widra, a senior research analyst with the Prison Policy Initiative, told CT Mirror. “The community-level effects of incarceration are so significant that we can no longer do individualized blaming or put it on the criminal behavior of an individual or something. It's really whole communities that are being affected by this."

The analysis — which in part looks at the number of people incarcerated per 100,000 residents to compare cities and towns across Connecticut — revealed that Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven have the highest incarceration rates. Hartford, which has the highest rate, has eight neighborhoods with rates higher than 1,000 people per 100,000 residents. Connecticut has an average rate of 394 people per 100,000 residents.

Among Connecticut’s five largest cities, Stamford has a relatively low incarceration rate of 214 people per 100,000 residents. But the city also has low numbers of Black, Hispanic or Latino residents and residents in poverty.

A CT Mirror analysis shows that incarceration rates tend to rise in areas as poverty rates increase and as median family income falls. Connecticut boasts the nation’s second-highest Hispanic and white disparity and third-most Black and white disparity in incarceration rates, according to The Sentencing Project.

“It's racism and racial profiling,” said Tiheba Bain, founder and executive director of Women Against Mass Incarceration. “They lock us up from our communities, put them in their communities in a cage, and then they say we're home.”

The number of state legislative seats a town receives is based on its population. That means prison gerrymandering effectively stripped political power from more diverse and urban areas and moved it into mostly white and rural towns with correctional facilities. Prison gerrymandering also meant Connecticut’s incarcerated people were represented by lawmakers who often did not “feel the same responsibility toward people in prison that they do for their other constituents,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The practice resulted in a 2018 federal lawsuit by the NAACP. Plaintiffs argued that prison gerrymandering violated the Fourteenth Amendment by inflating “the voting strength of predominantly white voters residing in certain Connecticut House and Senate Districts” as compared to the voting strength of people in other House and Senate districts.

“The problem of prison gerrymandering is particularly severe in Connecticut because of the state’s concentration of prisoners at facilities that are significant distances from their home communities,” the lawsuit stated. The case was voluntarily dismissed before the 2021 legislative session.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s study comes a year after Connecticut lawmakers required the state to count incarcerated people who cannot vote as part of the towns they lived in before confinement. Connecticut is one of several states that have eliminated the mass incarceration-era policy. The bill had bipartisan support and went into effect before the 2021 redistricting process.

Advocates have blasted the political effects of prison gerrymandering on underserved communities. High incarceration rates are connected with a slew of negative outcomes, including high unemployment, low household income and a high percentage of residents with less than a high school diploma or GED, according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s study. The study also highlights Hartford’s history of redlining.

Contrary to the government’s description of 1930s Clay Arsenal, the predominantly white area surrounding Hartford Golf Club was chronicled back then as “high, rolling and wooded land with pleasant outlook.” The West End, in close proximity to the golf club, has the lowest incarceration rate of Hartford’s neighborhoods.

Democrat Senator Gary Winfield, who represents New Haven and has long opposed prison gerrymandering, said the report’s findings are a result of decisions that people in power have historically made to disenfranchise people of color.

“You make racialized choices, you get racialized outcomes,” Winfield said. “What I have seen nationally and in Connecticut is that people basically want policy decisions to go away because of personal decisions, and that's just not how this works. So we have to be intentional in terms of policy about undoing the harm that we've done.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.