December 14 -- The Prison Policy Initiative, an organization that conducts research and advocacy on incarceration policy, today released the first analysis of how the Census Bureau's method of counting incarcerated people reduces the population of Montana's urban areas.
A little known quirk in the Census counts people in prison as if they were residents of the prison town. "This inflates the population of rural prison hosting areas, and shortchanges the areas most prisoners come from" said report author Peter Wagner. Montana's prison population grew four times larger from 1980 to 2000.
The biggest beneficiary of this Census practice is Powell County, where almost 19% of the county's census population is in the Montana State Prison. Eighty-one percent of the Native American adults the Census counted in Powell County are actually "residents" of the prison.
"I don't know many prisoners that are from Deer Lodge, but that's where the state's largest prison is," said Casey Rudd, director of Connections in Bozeman which helps prisoners reenter society. "Montana doesn't let prisoners vote until they are released, and when that day comes, prisoners leave the prison town and go home," she added.
Changing the numbers changes how democracy works, because legislative districts must be redrawn each decade to reflect the new population numbers from the Census. "Miscounting prisoners changes the way that state legislative districts are drawn," said Wagner. "This census policy creates an inaccurate picture of our communities, and state legislatures that rely on Census data likely violate the constitutional principle of one person one vote."
The report identifies one district, House District 85 (Powell and Deer Lodge counties) that counts among its census population 1,308 incarcerated people. The District is almost 15% prisoners, a higher figure than in any other state legislative district yet discovered in the United States. Prisoners can't vote in Montana, and on their release they will be returning to their home communities, but their presence at the prison town in the Census dilutes the votes of their family members back home.
"When I was in the legislature, I noted political clout on the part of Powell and Deer Lodge representatives and was personally disappointed at their unwillingness to look at prison reform," said former legislator Joan Hurdle (Billings, 1995-2001).
"The Supreme Court's 'One Person One Vote' rule was supposed to eliminate such large differences in voting power based on where people live," said Wagner.
The report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Montana, is part of a national series of studies funded by the Open Society Institute's Soros Justice Fellowship Program. The report can be accessed at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/montana
Peter Wagner (413) 527-0845
Casey Rudd (406) 556-1139
Joan Hurdle (406) 259-3132
The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) conducts research and advocacy on incarceration policy. Its work starts with the idea that the racial, gender and economic disparities between the prison population and the larger society represent the grounds for a democratic catastrophe. PPI's concept of prison reform is based not only in opposition to a rising rate of incarceration, but in the search for a lasting solution to pressing social problems superior to temporarily warehousing our citizens in prisons and jails.
The Prison Policy Initiative is based in Northampton, Massachusetts. For more information about PPI or prison policy in general, visit http://www.prisonpolicy.org.