by Peter Wagner, May 31, 2004

In the words of U.S. Department of Agriculture demographer Calvin Beale: “A rural prison is a classic ‘export’ industry, providing a service for the outside community.” Although rural counties contain only 20% of the national population, they have snapped up 60% of new prison construction. Like export processing zones in Third World countries, even the raw material is imported for final manufacture. In New York, for example, only 24% of prisoners are from the upstate region, but 91% of prisoners are incarcerated there.

graph showing where are prisoners from and where are they incarcerated in new york state

The Census Bureau counts the nation’s mostly urban prisoners as if they were residents of the mostly rural towns that host the prisons. This methodology infects the data used for legislative redistricting and results in a dilution of the voting strength of the communities that have large numbers of people in prison. States with large prison populations violate the 14th Amendment’s One Person One Vote principle when they rely on Census Bureau data to draw their legislative districts.

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by Peter Wagner, May 24, 2004

The current legislative stalemate in reforming New York’s drug laws might be the result of a Census Bureau quirk that counts prisoners as if they were residents of the prison town. Senate conference co-chairman Dale Volker is a former police officer opposed to many of the reforms proposed by Assembly conference co-chair Jeffrion Aubry of Queens. Aubry used to lead a social service agency that provided drug treatment.

Something else is reducing the clout of advocates for drug law reform: The U.S. Census. Each Senate district in New York City is missing about 1,800 incarcerated residents, with these residents instead credited to rural districts like Senator Dale Volker’s. One out of every 25 adults in Volker’s district is a prisoner barred by law from voting for or against the Senator. By the time these prisoners complete their sentences and are again allowed to vote, they will be back home in a different district.

The six prisons in Volker’s 59th district contain 8,951 prisoners including 2,391 drug offenders. These bodies swell Volker’s influence in violation of the Constitutional guarantee of one-person-one-vote. Prisons are big business in only a few districts, but every district in the state that sends people to prison sees its clout diminished in the legislature as a result of the Census Bureau’s counting method. Senator Volker has the right to advocate against drug law reform if he wishes, but his political clout should be based on the actual number of his rural constituents, and not on how many of New York City’s drug addicts are temporarily in rural prisons.

Source: Michael Cooper, Republicans and Democrats Clash on New York Drug Laws, New York Times, May 21, 2004 and Peter Wagner, Counting urban prisoners as rural residents counts out democracy in New York Senate Prison Policy Initiative, December 1, 2003.

by Peter Wagner, May 17, 2004

I was recently asked if restoring a prisoner’s right to vote would solve the census counting problem. Personally, I think that would be a good idea, but it would not address the principal problem from miscounting the incarcerated: diluting the votes of prisoners’ home communities.

All states that allow or recently allowed prisoners to vote required them to do so back home via absentee ballot. Most states have constitutional clauses or statutes that say that incarceration does not change a residence. (See for example New York, Arizona, Michigan, Vermont and Maine.) If prisoners were to be allowed to vote, it would be back home. Letting prisoners vote is controversial. Where they would vote is not.

The real victims from the way the Census counts prisoners are prisoners’ family and neighbors — people who have not been convicted of anything. Counting the incarcerated not at their homes but in radically different communities dilutes the votes of all the residents of the home communities.

There are 3 potential solutions:

  1. The Census Bureau can change its “usual residence rule” to count prisoners at the address they declare or at their last known address. The Census wrote the rules and they can change them. In the past, the Census has changed how numerous groups were counted, including college students, missionaries, and overseas Americans.
  2. States can fix the Census data before conducting redistricting. New York fixed some Census Bureau mistakes that placed some prisons in the wrong rural county. Kansas’ constitution requires that out-of-state students and military be deducted and in-state students and military restored to their homes. The Kansas Secretary of State sends out a survey to the colleges and military bases, and then fixes the data before giving it to the Legislature for redistricting.
  3. States can do their own censuses. Many states used to do this. Massachusetts was the last to abolish the state census, in about 1990. New York’s Constitution talks about bringing back the state census if the federal census does not contain the necessary data. Counting prisoners in the wrong part of the state sounds like deficient data to me.

The best solution is the first one. The Census should just update the usual residence rule to count the incarcerated at home. The rule might have made sense in 1790 when incarceration was low and redistricting didn’t exist, but it’s a relic now.

by Peter Wagner, May 10, 2004

The Bureau of Justice Statistics provides incarceration rate data for Latinos, non-Latino Whites, and non-Latino Blacks, but it does not provide this data for other groups. For another Prison Policy Initiative project, we tried to use the Census 2000 data to fill in this gap for every state in the country, but the results were not what we expected, and one finding was so shocking that we had to investigate further.

According to Census 2000 data, Minnesota appears to incarcerate Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders at a rate 45.8 times higher than it incarcerates White people. By Bureau of Justice Statistics figures, Minnesota has the 4th highest racial disparity between Black and White incarceration rates, incarcerating Blacks at a rate almost 13 times as frequently as Whites.

Why would Native Hawaiians in Minnesota be treated so harshly? Could it even be true that the Minnesota has incarcerated 1 out of every 10 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in the state?

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by Peter Wagner, May 3, 2004

Census 2000 showed a number of rural counties in the West, Midwest and Northeast that more than doubled their Black populations over the previous decade. Is this some sort of reversal of the great migration that saw millions of Blacks leave the rural South for Northern cities? Is a new economic opportunity drawing Blacks to leave cities for rural places? Not quite.

Most of the counties shown by the Census Bureau to have the fastest growing Black populations (see counties marked in purple in the first map below), are counties with new prisons with large incarcerated Black populations. (Compare with second map below.)

The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as if they were residents of the prison town, even though prisoners have no contact with the outside community and are not there by choice. This methodology has staggering implications for how and where Black citizens are counted. On Census Day, 2.5% of Black Americans found themselves behind bars. Twelve percent of Black men in their 20s or early 30s are incarcerated. These figures are 7 to 8 times higher than the corresponding statistics for Whites. The Census Bureau’s method of counting the incarcerated disproportionately counts Blacks in the wrong place.

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