by Peter Wagner, September 30, 2009

In a Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, Indiana) column, Mark Bennett argued that the Census Bureau’s decision to credit the population of the federal prison to the city of Terre Haute was a boon to the region. But while celebrating one regional benefit, he missed a bigger problem for democracy at home, as I point out in my letter to the editor:

The right way to count prisoners

Tribune-Star columnist Mark Bennett writes that the Census Bureau’s practice of counting federal prisoners as if they were residents of Terre Haute (“Multiple factors lead to Terre Haute posting ‘pretty impressive’ population growth“, July 18, 2009, Page D1) misses one thing: City council districts are also based on population.

Each decade, by Supreme Court precedent, districts must be redrawn so that each district contains the same number of residents. In this way, each resident gets the same access to government regardless of where she lives. Unfortunately, the Census count is not the same as the number of residents and this problem is about to get worse in Terre Haute.

When the Terre Haute City Council last updated the districts after the last Census, they unintentionally padded the First District with 1,764 prisoners, granting the 7,778 residents of that district as much say over the future of the city as 10,000 residents in each other district. If uncorrected after the 2010 Census, the expanded prison will be 30 percent of the district, creating an even larger vote dilution problem.

Unfortunately, the Census Bureau won’t be changing where it counts prisoners in next year’s Census. But there is an interim solution: ignore the prison populations when drawing council districts. Give every resident the same say over city council regardless of whether their district happens to contain a prison.

In my research, I’ve found more than 100 places like Terre Haute where the local government rejected the Census Bureau’s prison counts and choose instead to base their democracy on their resident population. The Census may count the prisoners as residents of Terre Haute, but the city isn’t bound by that count for its local districts.

Peter Wagner
Executive Director
Prison Policy Initiative
Easthampton, Mass.
July 25, 2009

It is sometimes tempting to portray the controversy over where incarcerated people should be counted as a “tug-of-war between cities and rural communities”, but that runs the very real risk of obscuring how the current Census policy hurts rural communities right now.

The impact of prison-based gerrymandering on state legislative districts is real and significant, but the impact on local legislatures, such as county boards and city councils, is even more pronounced. Because the district sizes tend to be relatively small in local government, a single prison can have a significant effect. It is for that reason that many of the people working the hardest for Census reform are rural people who live near, but not immediately adjacent to, large prisons.


September 25, 2009

The federal Census counts prisoners as part of the local population, and that creates big problems for state and local government, charges a new report by the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative.

“Governments rely on the Census to count the population so they can update legislative districts,” said Prison Policy Initiative Executive Director and report co-author Peter Wagner. The Supreme Court’s “One Person One Vote” rule requires that legislative districts each contain the same number of people, so that each person has the same access to government.

Where prisoners are counted is a particularly acute problem in Oklahoma. “Oklahoma incarcerates a greater portion of its population than 46 other states, so crediting prisoners to the wrong communities has staggering effects on democracy,” said report co-author Elena Lavarreda.[1]

The report finds that 7 House districts meet federal minimum population requirements only because prison inmates are included in the count. By using Census Bureau counts of prison populations to pad out legislative districts, Oklahoma is inflating the votes of residents who live near prisons in violation of the Supreme Court’s “one person one vote” rule.

“The problem is even larger in some rural county board districts,” said Wagner. The report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Oklahoma, finds rural county districts that are as much as 46% prisoners. “This allows the real residents of a district with a prison to unfairly dominate their county government.”

The report identifies 16 counties where prison populations have a large impact on democracy in county government, and applauds Greer County for rejecting the flawed Census counts and drawing districts without regard to the prison miscount.

The report calls on Oklahoma to lobby the Census Bureau to change how prisoners are counted in the future and to develop state solutions to protect the restricting process after the 2010 Census.

The report, “Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Oklahoma”, is available at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/ok/

[1] Oklahoma Sentencing Commission, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prison Inmates at Midyear 2007, Spreadsheet table pim07at05.csv, June 2008. Oklahoma has 670 people serving a state prison sentence for every 100,000 people in the state. The 3 states with higher incarceration rates are Louisiana (857), Mississippi (723) and Texas (682).


by Peter Wagner, September 14, 2009

The 23rd decennial Census will again be counting incarcerated people in the wrong place. But if a proposed constitutional amendment in Wisconsin passes, the state’s days of using prison counts to distort districts (and influence elections) will be over.

Currently, one state legislative district is 10% prisoners, giving the residents of that district disproportionate say over state affairs. And because county board and rural city alderman districts are so much smaller, the inclusion of a single state prison in these districts can allow a handful of residents to dominate the county board or city council.

Ideally, the Census Bureau would change where it counts people in prison. But the pace of change has so far been slow, and with time running short before the next Census in April, the number of options are limited. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorialized in 2006:

Congress has asked the Census Bureau to report on how it could change the way it counts inmates, who now number about 1.5 million nationally. The National Academy of Sciences is also doing a study.

Yes, inmates really live in prison, but in no sense are they part of the community in which they are imprisoned. The census must count every U.S. resident, but it needn’t count them this way.

Neither Congress nor the Census Bureau really needs a report here. The bureau should change how it counts inmates, and if it doesn’t, Congress should mandate it.

Unfortunately, the Census Bureau responded with an “obtuse and evasive report” and Congress failed to follow up. The National Academies instructed the Bureau to conduct research on the best way to change how incarcerated people are counted, but there too, the Bureau failed to move forward. By now, the Bureau has squandered too much of the critical planning time to make the change before the next Census in 2010.

Now, the burden to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering is shifting to the states. In Wisconsin, Rep. Frederick Kessler has introduced a constitutional amendment that would require the state and local governments to ignore the prison populations when drawing districts. This approach would not credit incarcerated people back to their homes in Milwaukee and other urban areas, but it would end the practice of crediting them to the rural districts where they count for as much as a tenth of a state legislative district.

Other states are exploring options that would identify where incarcerated people are from and then adjust the federal Census counts to use the home addresses. The Wisconsin amendment [PDF] takes a simpler approach that will address the majority of the problem.

At 10am tomorrow (September 15th), I’ll be in 300 Northeast at the Wisconsin State Capital to testify in support of the Wisconsin Census Correction amendment which would direct state and local governments to omit the Census Bureau’s incarcerated population when drawing legislative districts.


by Peter Wagner, September 10, 2009

Eli Lehrer writes in the conservative National Review Online that the Census Bureau should change where it counts incarcerated people:

“Prisoners aren’t, in any real sense, residents of the places where they are incarcerated…. Their victims and families very likely live in the places where they came from. In short, the costs that prisoners impose on society fall on the municipalities where they lived and will probably return after release.”

See: Eli Lehrer, How Should the Census Count Prisoners? National Review Online.


by Peter Wagner, September 9, 2009

The residents of Maine’s Regional School Unit 13 have launched a petition drive to end prison-based gerrymandering in their school district. The school district’s voting system is based on Census Bureau estimates for 2006 that credited the town of Thomaston with the population of the Maine State Prison that had closed 4 years prior. Not only does Maine state law say that a prison is not a residence, the prison counted in the Census did not even exist at the time of the count.

Unfortunately, the school board has refused to change the voting system, and to date the Commissioner of Education has ignored requests [PDF] to intervene.

By Maine law, voters can use a petition to require the Commissioner to rule on whether a voting system violates the constitutional principles of One Person One Vote.

The petition is only open to the residents of Cushing, Owls Head, Rockland, South Thomaston, St. George, and Thomaston Maine, but this page of question and answers explains the campaign.

Sept 10 update: St. George Select Board Chairman William Reinhardt tells the Knox County Herald Gazette that he supports changing the RSU 13 apportionment to give his town a fairer voice on the school board.

Meet us

Nothing scheduled right now. Invite us to to your city, college or organization or apply for an internship.

Stay informed:

Get the latest updates by signing up for our newsletters:


Tweet this Follow @PrisonPolicy on Twitter Donate Contact Us