100,000 people call for an end to prison gerrymandering

by Peter Wagner, September 8, 2016  

In June, the Census Bureau announced plans to continue counting incarcerated people as residents of their prison, not home, addresses in the 2020 Census, and invited public comments on their proposal. Almost 100,000 people including civil rights organizations, elected officials at all levels of government, former Directors of the Census Bureau and citizens from across the country weighed in to tell the Census Bureau that a prison is not a residence.

The comment period closed last week on September 1 and a final decision is expected by the end of the year. The Bureau won’t publish the comments it received until that time, but a large sample is available now at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/letters/FRN2016.html

One key theme in these comments is that:

Treating a prison as a “usual residence” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of incarceration. The critical issue is that while a prison itself seems permanent, the people located there on any given day are not.

The Prison Policy Initiative and our long-time partners at Dēmos submitted an in-depth 18 page comment that corrects the Census Bureau’s fundamental misunderstanding of incarceration and explains that while a prison stay is temporary, an incarcerated person’s connection to his or her home is enduring.

Many other organizations made very substantial contributions of criminal justice data, demographic data, and legal research as well. For example, the Vera Institute of Justice analyzed never seen before data from Washington, Oregon, and Nebraska to show that the median time at the current facility on April 1st, 2015 was less than nine months.

LatinoJustice PRLDEF questioned why the Census Bureau recognizes the family and community ties of boarding school students and members of Congress to count them at their home addresses, but fails to give incarcerated people the same consideration. Several elected officials made it clear that residents of their jurisdictions remain their constituents — and continue to look to them for representation — even when incarceration forcibly moves these constituents to different counties and states. This same point about residence was also made by a former correctional officer who observed that incarcerated people were not regarded as fellow constituents by nearby residents in her county.

There were also several important petitions. Leaders of 35 foundations, including Ford Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation and Bauman Foundation, explained their need for accurate Census data and urged the Bureau to recognize that incarcerated people should be counted at home. 39 civil rights groups joined with The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to call for a fair and accurate 2020 Census. Daily Kos organized 29,000 of their members to send individual messages to the Census Bureau and 48,314 of their members to sign a petition. CREDO Action also asked its members to submit public comments calling for an end to prison gerrymandering, with more than 47,600 doing so.

The Prison Policy Initiative would like to thank everyone who submitted a comment calling for a fair and accurate 2020 Census. Stay tuned to http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org for more analysis and updates on next steps.

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  • September 21, 2016:
    Executive Director Peter Wagner will be speaking at Claremont McKenna College in California. Details TBA.

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