Counting urban prisoners as rural residents counts out democracy in New York Senate

by Peter Wagner, December 1, 2003  

The inmates at Attica prison in western New York state are represented in Albany by state Sen. Dale Volker, a conservative Republican who says it’s a good thing his captive constituents can’t vote, because if they could, “They would never vote for me.” …

Senator Volker made his career pushing prison expansion and the criminalization of drug use. He calls himself the “Keeper of the Keys” for his control of where new prisons are built. Because the U.S. Census counts prisoners where they are incarcerated, Volker gets to include the prisoners when redrawing his district lines each decade to ensure that he has the same population as other districts. Equal-sized districts are necessary to ensure that all citizens have an equally weighted vote.

Counting prisoners where they are incarcerated, and not where they are from, undercuts this one person one vote policy. Look at the “constituents” in Senator Volker’s district:

Officially, the district is overwhelmingly white (94.2% White, 2.13% Black), but even that little diversity is from the prisoners. The 8,951 prisoners are 77% Black or Latino. Without the prisoners, the district would be 96.5% White and 0.64% Black.

Prisoners are not an interest group native to the rural 59th district. Eighty-five percent of the prisoners come from urban or suburban areas: New York City (53%), suburban New York City (8.6%) or the upstate urban cities (23%). The remainder come not necessarily from Volker’s rural district, but from all the state’s rural areas combined.

The 213,402 free adults in the district live with 71,903 children. The 8,951 prisoners, on the other hand, report having at least 11,358 living children, but they probably get to see them infrequently. The driving distance between the most well-known prison in the district, Attica, and New York City, is 369 miles.

Politically, the prisoners and the real constituents don’t have much in common. Prisons are a major industry in the district, with an estimated 3,000 people working directly for the prison system. The 8,951 prisoners, including 2,391 incarcerated for drug offenses, presumably would support alternatives to incarceration including treatment for drug addiction over expensive incarceration.

Rural prison towns do not share a “community of interest” with urban prisoners or their loved ones. In fact, they are often in contradiction. Senator Dale Volker told Newhouse News Service he does get letters from prisoners with a variety of complaints, but that his real attention is directed toward corrections workers, with whom he has forged strong relationships.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with a Senator preferring one group of constituents over another. But the fact that Senator Volker treats prisoners as if they didn’t actually live in the district suggests both the problem and the solution. Urban prisoners are not a part of rural districts and they should be counted among their own constituency: at home.

Senator Volker quotes from Jonathan Tilove, Minority Prison Inmates Skew Local Populations as States Redistrict Newhouse News Service, March 12, 2002; statistics from Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York and my own analysis of Census 2000, NYS DOCs data and Senator Volker’s new district.

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