Why are so many Native Hawaiians incarcerated in Minnesota?

by Peter Wagner, May 10, 2004  

The Bureau of Justice Statistics provides incarceration rate data for Latinos, non-Latino Whites, and non-Latino Blacks, but it does not provide this data for other groups. For another Prison Policy Initiative project, we tried to use the Census 2000 data to fill in this gap for every state in the country, but the results were not what we expected, and one finding was so shocking that we had to investigate further.

According to Census 2000 data, Minnesota appears to incarcerate Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders at a rate 45.8 times higher than it incarcerates White people. By Bureau of Justice Statistics figures, Minnesota has the 4th highest racial disparity between Black and White incarceration rates, incarcerating Blacks at a rate almost 13 times as frequently as Whites.

Why would Native Hawaiians in Minnesota be treated so harshly? Could it even be true that the Minnesota has incarcerated 1 out of every 10 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in the state?

We dug further into the data. The Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population in question is definitely incarcerated within Minnesota, but not by the state of Minnesota. Almost all of the Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders incarcerated in Minnesota can be found in Swift County where the Corrections Corporation of America operates a private prison under contract with the state of Hawaii.

Relying on a counting method developed 2 centuries ago, Census Bureau counts prisoners as if they were residents of the state and town that contains the prison. This denies the home region a true count of its population and boosts the prison state’s numbers. Whether it makes good criminological sense to incarcerate people 4,000 miles from their families is a hot topic in Hawaii and the other states that contract out confinement.

What should not be controversial is recognizing that counting out-of-state prisoners as if they were residents of the prison town frustrates the ability of state and federal governments fairly divide legislative districts and resources. People need to be counted at their homes not at arbitrary temporary locations. This Census methodology might have made sense in 1790, but it is outdated now.

In the next Census in 2010, the Census Bureau should do the right thing and count the incarcerated at their homes and not at arbitrary prison addresses.

Source: U.S. Census 2000; Prison Policy Initiative State incarceration rates by race, 2001

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