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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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Prison town says census count cost funds

by Peter Wagner, January 20, 2010

While it is important that everyone be counted in the Census for reasons of both democracy and funding, I’ve long argued that where incarcerated people are counted has only a very minor affect on funding.

Most federal funding is block grants to states, meaning that the federal government gives each state money based on their total population, the states are then free to distribute it as they see fit within their own borders. For block grant purposes it does not matter, therefore, where in a state an incarcerated people is counted. Most other funding programs are quite sophisticated and are calculated in ways that directly or indirectly ignore the prison population. For example, federal funds intended for low-income schools are based on the number of low-income children in the Census or the number of students in the school’s discounted lunch program. Here again, funding is unaffected by any miscount of the incarcerated population in the state.

So while the prison miscount has a severe impact on elections, the impact on funding in rural prison-hosting areas tends to be minor, and it is non-existent in urban high-incarceration communities.

Occasionally, however, we discover examples where there is a financial cost to a community that has its population padded with prison populations. Anamosa, Iowa pays extra money to county dump because the fee is calculated on a per-capita basis, with its prison population included. Prison towns in Connecticut pay an increased regional public health fee because their incarcerated populations are included in their total population count. In Ohio, artificially inflating the town of Grafton would have forced the town to become a city, which would force it to raise taxes and offer unnecessary state-mandated-services, so the town successfully lobbied the state to change the definition of “city” so that the prison miscount would not burden the town.

Another example comes out of Connell, Washington, where the expanded state prison could put the town’s population over 5,000, forcing it to add additional city council seats and making it ineligible for certain state programs aiding smaller towns. The legislature is considering a fix:

Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, is sponsoring the House version of a bill that would allow cities to choose whether to include inmates in their population.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who’s sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said counting inmates used to benefit cities because they received money from the motor vehicle excise tax on a per capita basis.

When the fear of the impact of funding is alleviated, the people, and their representatives in the legislature, can clearly see that the potential harm to democracy is much larger than any possible impact to funding. In some places, counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison brings a small benefit. In other places, it brings a small cost. In either case, the amount is small. Whether there is a net financial benefit or cost, however small, to these towns, the problem really starts with the Census Bureau.

Until the Bureau starts counting incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses, these kinds of small ad hoc solutions are the only option left for small towns. That said, the most urgent thing to fix in Washington is where incarcerated people are counted, for the sake of the state’s democracy. The democratic ideas of equal representation require that Washington adjust the Census count for redistricting purposes. As the Washington State Constitution reminds us:

“no person shall be deemed to have gained a residence by reason of his presence or lost it by reason of his absence, … while confined in any public prison…” (Art VI, Section 4.)

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