NAACP suing Pennsylvania to stop ‘prison gerrymandering’

The 70-page complaint is rooted in a consequential — and forthcoming — political process: the census.

  • Aaron Moselle/WHYY

(Philadelphia) — Just ahead of the 2020 Census, three formerly incarcerated men from Philadelphia are suing the state to end the controversial practice known as “prison-based gerrymandering.”

Filed in Commonwealth Court on Thursday, the civil lawsuit maintains that it’s against state law for Pennsylvania to count those serving time as residents of the counties where they are in prison, instead of in the counties where they were living when they were arrested.

The reason, according to the suit, is that it “artificially and arbitrarily inflates” the political power of the predominantly white, rural communities where most of the state’s prisons are located and “artificially and arbitrarily dilutes” the political power of the predominantly Black and Latinx communities where most of the state’s prison population resided before starting their sentences.

“We’re filing this lawsuit to challenge this perverse distortion of representation … that misuses the bodies of incarcerated people,” said Cara McClellan, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which joined the law firm Ballard Spahr to file suit on behalf of the men and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is also named as a respondent in the suit.

Citing pending litigation, a Wolf spokeswoman declined comment, but previously the governor has said that prisoners should be counted based on their home districts.

The 70-page complaint is rooted in a consequential — and forthcoming — political process.

The census, completed every 10 years, is used to draw new congressional and state legislative maps. Philadelphia, for example, would get at least one additional state representative in Harrisburg if Pennsylvania started counting prisoners based on their home counties, according to a Villanova University study released in April.

It’s a fact that frustrates Robert Holbrook, the case’s lead plaintiff. The Philadelphia resident served 27 years of a life sentence for murder in a state prison 200 miles from his hometown. He said this suit would try to give Philly the political clout it deserves.

“The communities that are the epicenters of mass incarceration in Pennsylvania are also the ones impacted by poverty, violence, underfunded schools, environmental racism, food deserts, a lack of employment opportunities, and countless other social inequalities,” said Holbrook, who was released early after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional.

The redistricting process starts in 2021. Before that happens, the hope is the lawsuit will require Pennsylvania to retroactively count prisoners based on their home counties and not the counties where they are behind bars, said McClellan.

In 2018, the NAACP filed a similar lawsuit over prison gerrymandering in a federal court in Connecticut. That case is still pending.

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on

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