By Joel Jacobs
When Chicago politicians redrew the 24th Ward in 2011, it contained a notable addition — a narrow, hook-like appendage that extended over a mile south, widening at the bottom to include the Cook County Jail.
As a result, jail inmates accounted for approximately one in six people in the new 24th Ward.
The City Council draws ward boundaries every 10 years based on the U.S. census, which counts jail inmates as residents of the place they are incarcerated at. On April 1, 2010 — the last Census Day — 9,633 people were held in the Cook County Jail. The following year, wards were redrawn with around 54,000 people each.
Even though the Cook County Jail’s population has dropped precipitously in the past decade, it still holds more than 5,500 inmates on average. With the 2020 census coming up this year, the question remains how the jail population will factor into next year’s redistricting.
“I think it’s ridiculous to count jail populations in redistricting,” said 12th Ward Ald. George Cardenas, who was first elected in 2003 when the 12th Ward contained the jail.
He also said the current map was unfair to residents living in the narrow strip that leads to the jail.
“They’re not being represented as they should be,” he said.
The last ward redistricting, in 2011-2012, was a contentious process that included months of closed-door negotiations.
Changing demographics became a driving issue — the city’s black population had declined sharply, while the Hispanic population had increased.
In the end, the number of majority black wards fell by one, while the number of majority Hispanic wards increased by three. The 24th Ward retained its black majority after redistricting, with some help from the jail population.
“The inmates come from all over the county, the majority are African American,” said Cardenas, whose ward has a Hispanic majority. “And in the last redistricting, that’s the reason why [the 24th Ward is] drawn that way, because it was used to augment population data on the West Side.” Cardenas voted to approve the redistricted map.
Ami Gandhi, senior counsel at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, disagreed with the redistricting practices. “To count them in the jail in order to preserve black majority district is posing a false choice because individuals of color and all individuals should be counted accurately.”
Ald. Michael Scott, Jr., who has represented the 24th Ward since 2015, declined interview requests. But Scott’s chief of staff, Michael Halbert, emphasized that the ward was drawn legally and said that they would follow any changes in the law.
Nationally, there has been a push to end the practice of counting prisoners as residents of the prison where they are held, also known as prison gerrymandering. This practice tends to give additional political clout to more rural, whiter areas that contain prisons at the expense of urban, predominantly minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by mass incarceration.
Several states have passed bills ending prison gerrymandering, and a similar bill has been introduced repeatedly in the Illinois House (most recently as H.B. 0203), although it has faced significant political hurdles. But these reforms generally exclude jails, which tend to be smaller in rural areas and hold people from the local area
There’s another major difference between jails and prisons: Most people in jail can vote, since they have not been convicted of a felony.
“Voters inside Cook County Jail register and vote with the address associated with home,” said Jen Dean, deputy director of Chicago Votes, which hosts monthly voter drives at Cook County Jail. “The jail location is only a temporary address—it is not their home residence.”
This gives inmates a sort of dual political identity. This March, an inmate could vote in the primary election using the address they associate with home. But if they’re still in jail in April, the 2020 census will count them as a resident of the jail.
Gandhi said that jail systems typically have information about inmates’ permanent home addresses, which could be used to more equitably count inmates who come from neighborhoods outside the ward where the jail is located.
“The political voice of people in those neighborhoods should not be diluted in any way just because they unfortunately have a high number of people who are ensnared in our flawed criminal justice system,” she said.