Prison Policy Initiative dispels the myth that a prison cell is a “usual residence”

by Alison Walsh, September 6, 2016  

PPI letter

Last year, the Census Bureau requested comments on the 2020 Decennial Census Residence Rule and Residence Situations and received 162 comments on the topic of where to count incarcerated people. 96% of these comments favored counting incarcerated people at their home addresses. But the Bureau ignored the overwhelming public input and, in June, announced plans to continue the outdated and inaccurate practice of counting incarcerated people as “residents” of prison locations.

The Census Bureau seeks to count everyone at his or her “usual residence,” defined as the place where a person “eats and sleeps most of the time.” In our response to the Bureau’s latest request for comments, we and our partners at Dēmos make it clear that a prison cell is not a usual residence under this definition, and the consequences of the prison miscount extend far beyond correctional facility walls.

Our comment letter makes four key arguments:

Apart from how short a time any given person spends at any given facility, the total length of individual sentences of persons in state prisons is much shorter than is routinely assumed. (pp 2-5)

Other similarly situated people are counted at home, while incarcerated people are strangely singled out to be counted in the wrong place. (pp 5-11)

We believe, on factual, practical, and legal grounds, that the Bureau is incorrect in asserting that it can cede all responsibility for producing useful redistricting data to state governments. (pp 11-13)

Most people in the country are harmed by prison gerrymandering to one extent or another. (pp 13-15)

As more and more jurisdictions are eliminating prison gerrymandering within their borders, and federal courts twice this year declared prison gerrymandering unconstitutional, the Census Bureau should heed the growing consensus and count incarcerated people in the right place in the next Census.

Though we think it’s a good read, our full comment letter is 18 pages long. So we summarized the main arguments and data in one handy fact sheet.

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