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Frequent transfers mean that prison is not a residence

by Peter Wagner, March 21, 2005

The U.S. Census currently counts prisoners as residents of the correctional facility, despite the requirement in many state constitutions that incarceration does not change a residence. Because prisons tend to be built far from the communities where most prisoners originate, when states rely on federal census data to redraw their legislative district lines, they unwittingly violate their own constitutions and distort the distribution of political power in their states.

Although the use of incarceration and sentence lengths have greatly increased in recent decades, the statistics of the New York State Department of Correctional Services underscore the wisdom of the state constitutional requirement that “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his presence or absence … while confined in any public prison.” N.Y. Const. art. II, § 4.

Incarceration meets neither the voluntary nor the intent to remain requirements of residence. Prisoners not choose to move to a prison town, they are sent there against the will by the state. Despite ever-increasing sentence lengths, the public perception that most prisoners will never be released is unfounded. In New York State in 2000, the median time served in custody is 24 months. That same median prisoner will be eligible for release in less than 15 months. Incarceration is merely a temporary absence from home, not the creation of a new residence that severs ties to the old.

New York State publishes another statistic that emphasizes how temporary and involuntary a prisoner’s presence in the prison location is: In New York State, the median time served in the current facility is less than 7 months. The average prisoner might be in more than 5 different prisons during his or her sentence, each at the discretion of the Department of Corrections.

Counting prisoners as residents of the prison location might make sense for the Census Bureau and the national count, but it is an inadequate way of determining where a state’s population resides for purposes of distributing political power within a state. Either the Census Bureau needs to update its methods, or states need to begin developing new ways to count their population.

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