SUMMARY: EXPO (Ex-incarcerated People Organizing) Associate Director Ramiah Whiteside drives us through the neighborhood where he grew up in Milwaukee and discusses the real consequences of prison gerrymandering for the everyday lives of people and neighborhoods.
Link to Video on YouTube: Click Here
Prison gerrymandering happens when legislators use distorted data from the Census Bureau to count the number of people in each district. The Census makes the mistake of counting incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are securely housed instead of the towns they are from (and will likely return to when their right to vote is restored). The result is an inaccurate picture of the “size” of towns; the towns where correctional facilities exist receive more representation and funding than they are due and the towns where those housed in correctional facilities are from receive less representation and funding than they deserve.
In Wisconsin, prison gerrymandering is so common it creates some of the most dramatic distortion in the nation. The Prison Policy Initiative uses statistics to demonstrate the problem. For example, they say that “80% of a district in Juneau County is incarcerated. This gives every 20 residents of that district the same voting power as 100 residents of any other ward.” But these statistics do not show the impact of prison gerrymandering on the everyday lives of those living in the towns who do not get to count their citizens as their own. Here’s one of those stories from our Assistant Director Ramiah Whiteside.
I grew up in the Hillside Housing Projects in Milwaukee. From the time I was 4, I remember walking over the highway on a bridge that took us about a mile to the welfare building. Of course, it’s not called the welfare building now. It is called the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center. Maybe it was called that when I grew up too. But we never called it that. We called it the welfare building.
When I was 4, 5, 6 and 7, I would walk to the welfare building, sometimes with my older brother and sometimes alone, to get hot food from the cafeteria in the basement. We would go there often because we were hungry. Some days people would offer to get us food. Some days no one did. On those days, we would wait around and take some food then run somewhere in the building and eat it before we went off to school or back home. That’s how we ate that day. Right or wrong, that’s how it was.
The apartments where I grew up in the Hillside Housing Projects are still there. They’ve been renovated quite a bit since I grew up, but it’s hard to believe from looking at their condition. There are a couple of things you notice if you drive around Hillside.
First, you will see trash laying everywhere. It’s just normal. The trashcan areas are full and overflowing with household garbage, boxes, clothes, broken furniture and bicycles, and old mattresses. All of that trash overflows onto the street and into the gutters. Those of us who lived – and live – here have to see this every single day. It’s just normal.
Second, the street is torn up and there are potholes all over the place. Some of the potholes are big enough for a swimming pool. If you drive around the neighborhood you can see them. But if you don’t live here, don’t circle around the same street more than once; people will wonder what you’re doing.
Third, I don’t remember there being a single play area for kids when I lived there. It was the definition of a concrete jungle. Today, there is a small play area that includes a single slide, a concrete pad, a set of parallel bars, and a bench. It’s nothing like the huge play structures with multiple slides, bridges tunnels, climbers, swings, and merry go rounds that sit in open green spaces in the wealthier parts of town. It is still a concrete jungle.
The Hillside Housing Projects are where I am from. And it needs a little help. It needs funds from the government that are given based on how many people live in a given area. But prison gerrymandering takes the funds that belong to Hillside – where I grew up and where I am from – and gives them instead to the communities and towns where the state has forcibly housed me in secure facilities.
The streets that are around the facilities where I have been housed – whether it be Oshkosh or Waupun or Dodge or Fox Lake or Red Granite – do not look like the streets of Hillside. They aren’t covered in trash that hasn’t been picked up or in holes that haven’t been fixed. And they have playgrounds where kids can play on more than a slide. They do not need the same funds that my Hillside needs.
Prison gerrymandering isn’t just about lines on a map drawn in the backrooms of the state capital. It is not just about counting people. It is about the economic impact, the social impact, the mental and emotional impact on people like me who grow up and live in the Hillside Housing Projects one mile away from the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center.