Local officials tell prisoners: “You don’t live here”

by Peter Wagner, June 7, 2004

Many prison town officials are quick to claim prisoners as residents when the Census Bureau comes to town, but prisoners report that this is the only time these officials are so welcoming.

The Census Bureau counts the nation’s mostly urban prisoners as if they were residents of the prison town. When the Census’ only purpose was to count the total population of each state for purposes of apportioning Congress, this procedure might have made sense. Today, when this data is used for state legislative redistricting, the method is an outdated relic that distorts the size of communities within the same state. Last week’s column discussed the theoretical rationale for defining residence based on the place you willingly choose to be and argued that since prisoners are moved to prison against their will, their residence is unchanged. In prior columns, I’ve written that most states have constitutional clauses and statutes that define residence for electoral purposes as to exclude prisons. This column explores how communities with prisons conceive of prisoner residence.

In the cases where the Census Bureau erred and placed the prison in the wrong rural town, the town with the prison frequently complained. But outside of the Census, do local officials consider prisoners to be residents of the town? Are there local services that are available only to residents that prisoners are denied on the basis that the prisoners are not residents?

To find out, I placed classified ads in publications that prisoners read and was flooded with responses. Many prisoners were intrigued, but stumped. This letter was typical:

“Albion State Penitentiary [where I am incarcerated] is so far out in the woods, in the extreme northwest corner of Pennsylvania, it is known as Far B Yon. … I’d be pleased to help … but I have no idea what organizations or types of services to request assistance for.”

By virtue of their incarceration, prisoners are not able to visit the local parks or discuss the affairs of the day in the town square, but my correspondents did identify two local services applicable only to residents but denied to them: the local library and the court system.

Books for the homebound but not the cellbound

The Casa Grande Arizona Public Library serves the town of Florence, Arizona where 12,000 of the 17,000 population is incarcerated. Florence is hyper-aware of the Census issue, as it aggressively annexed the prisons in order to claim their population. But can the prisoners share in the benefits their “residence” gave the town? The library was gracious enough to consider my correspondent “technically eligible for library services” but they refused to ship him books by mail or to make other arrangements as they require patrons to be physically present at the library to check out books. An exception is made, of course, for “those local residents who are homebound” (emphasis added).

Closing the courthouse door

Another right frequently denied to prisoners on the basis of residence is the use of the local court system for divorce in New York, Michigan and Missouri. County governments typically must pay the costs for indigent proceedings, so there is an economic pressure to push the case elsewhere. This is despite Supreme Court Justice Blackmun’s admonition that “inasmuch as one convicted of a serious crime and imprisoned usually is divested of the franchise, the right to file a court action stands as his most fundamental political right, because preservative of all rights.”

When prisoners in Washington County New York seek an indigent divorce in the local courts, they are refused with the instruction to file “in the county in which you lived prior to incarceration.” This is true even if the marriage itself took place in the prison county.


Prisons are in many ways like a large hotel. They offer some degree of employment to the surrounding community and the people sleeping there consume a fair amount of water and other utilities. Unlike prisoners, though, people staying in hotels on Census day are counted at home, but that’s not the only difference. Hotel guests are encouraged to find new ways to participate in and develop the outside community beyond the hotel walls. That’s the last thing the prison community wants.

Towns with prisons may to varying degrees choose to have a prison within their borders, but these towns do not consider the prisoners to be residents of their community. Instead of continuing an outdated conception of prisoner residence, the Census Bureau’s statistical portrait of our communities should match how the people actually view their communities. Prisoners should be counted at home.

Sources: This article could not have been written without the assistance of the numerous prisoners who sent in correspondence and answered my many requests for further documentation. I am also very appreciative of the many publications that ran a small classified ad for the project last year. The Justice Blackmun quote omits internal citations and is from a concurring opinion in Hudson v. McMillian 503 US 1, 15 (1992). Other quotations are from letters from local officials to prisoners incarcerated in their town or county.

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