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Zoe Gottlieb takes prisoner-census analysis to southern states

by Peter Wagner, April 11, 2005

Zoe Gottlieb, a law student at the New York University School of Law, has made available on Prisoners of the Census the first review in southern states of the impact of how the U.S. Census counts prisoners. The paper, Prisoner enumeration and the “Usual Residence” rule in southern states, [PDF] looks at the county of origin and county of incarceration for prisoners in Georgia and North Carolina.

In the states I have previously studied, the urban areas often have large Black and Latino populations while the rural areas house the majority of the prisons but are largely white. In New York, I found that although New York State’s prisoners are 82% Black or Latino, 98% of New York’s prisoners are incarcerated in Senate districts that were disproportionately White for the state as a whole.

Ms. Gottlieb’s study is the first attempt to quantify at the county level in the South whether prisons are likely to be built in white rural areas. Given the very different demographics of the South and the fact that that region has the highest incarceration rate in the country, Gottlieb’s review is well timed to the growing national interest in the accuracy and utility of Census data.

Although prisoners are come from large portions of both Georgia and North Caolina rather than a single large city, Gottlieb confirmed that the majority of prisoners are residents of what the Census Bureau labels “metropolitan” counties and are incarcerated in “non-metropolitan” counties. However, unlike in the North and despite disproportionate Black incarceration, Gottlieb found no evidence of a transfer of prisoners from largely Black counties to majority White counties.

This latter finding was not unexpected because although prisons in the South are likely to be in non-metropolitan counties, Southern non-metropolitan counties have large Black populations. (A review of employment patterns I conducted last year with Rose Heyer found that the South was the only place besides the urban areas of the Northeast where any prisons had a racial parity between prisoners and staff.)

However, Ms. Gottlieb was only able to extend this analysis down to the county level. It is possible that when this analysis is extended down to the legislative district level, additional detail may become apparent. But regardless, the high concentration of prisons in rural Georgia identified by Gottlieb has disturbing implications for the ability of all states to rely on Census data for an accurate representation of where their population actually resides.

Ms. Gottlieb also included some detailed tables about Alabama, but errors in how the Census Bureau classified correctional facilities by type (state, federal or local) frustrated a complete analysis of that state at the county level. However, her data in all 3 states provides an insightful look in to prisoner origin and prison construction patterns at the county level, and offers some valuable insights to guide future research in to how the redistricting process is skewed in the South by the Census Bureau’s method of counting our large incarcerated population.

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