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Prison gerrymandering gives extra political power to legislators who have prisons in their districts. We put numbers on the problem and sparked a movement to protect our democratic process from the overgrown prison system.

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Rural Pennsylvania invests in prisons, but not for their own residents

by Peter Wagner, August 16, 2004

Like many other states, Pennsylvania has engaged in a huge prison building boom over the last 2 decades. And like in many other states, the locations of the prisons and the origin of the prisoners have been unevenly distributed throughout the state.

PA institutional populations over time

Source: Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.

Pennsylvania built 2 state prisons in the 1960s, 1 in the 1970s and 5 in the 1980s. Prison construction exploded in the 1990s, with 11 new state facilities. Three more have been built or are under construction since.

Pennsylvania’s federal prisons grew quickly as well. The Penitentiary at Lewisburg opened in 1932, and a facility was added in the 1960s, the 1970s, two in the 1980s and 4 in the 1990s. Pennsylvania is only 4% of the U.S. population, but houses 8% of the nation’s federal prisoners.

PA incarceration rates by county

Rural Pennsylvania harvests the majority of the prisons, but few of the prisoner seeds come from the rural counties that host the prisons. Twelve percent of the state lives in Philadelphia, but 40% of the state’s prisoners are from the city. No state prisoners are incarcerated within Philadelphia and only 52 prisoners were reported in the federal facility in the city.

The overall Pennsylvania incarceration rate of 299 prisoners per 100,000 residents is lower than the national average, but this rate is far from even throughout the state. The incarceration rate for Philadelphia residents is 965 per 100,000 residents, more than 3 times the state average. The overwhelming majority of the prisons in the state are located in counties that incarcerate their residents at less than, or markedly less than, the state average.

It would appear that incarceration might be good for business in these rural counties, but these same counties view incarceration as anything but positive for their actual residents.

For more on prisoners and the census in Pennsylvania, see also: Prisoners and the 2000 Census by Robert T. Hoetzel; Felon Disenfranchisement: Pennsylvania’s Sinister Face of Vote Dilution, by Jon E. Yount; and Too Big to Ignore: How counting people in prisons distorted Census 2000 by Rose Heyer and Peter Wagner.

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