98% of New York’s prison cells are in disproportionately White Senate districts

by Peter Wagner, January 17, 2005

The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as if they were residents not of their homes but of the prison’s location. When states like New York ignore their own constitutional requirement that incarceration does not change a residence and use Census data to draw legislative districts, the result is to transfer political power from high incarceration neighborhoods to the areas that contain the prisons.

I’ve previously written about the regional bias implicit in the arrangement. Sixty-six percent of the New York State’s prisoners come from New York City, but 91% of the state’s prison cells are located in the upstate region.

Even more critical is how this impacts the political power of Blacks and Latinos in the state compared to Whites. New York State is 62% White, but 82% of the state’s prison population is Black or Latino.

Virtually all — 98% — of the prison cells are located in state Senate districts that are disproportionately White for the state.

If New York State wants to draw districts that accurately and fairly represent the population of the state, it needs to encourage the Census Bureau to change how it counts prisoners.

Note: The methodology for this article draws its inspiration from Paul Street’s article about Illinois counties: The Color and Geography of Prison [PDF]. This article relies on the new Figure 13 in my 2002 report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York. Consistent with that report and how the New York Legislature and Department of Correctional Services count race and ethnicity, I’ve used the term “White” to mean “Non-Hispanic White” as counted in the U.S. Census. To produce the 98% figure, I calculated from Figure 13 that New York was 62% Non-Hispanic White. I then filtered Figure 13 to show just those legislative districts that were 62% or more Non-Hispanic White, and added up the number of prisoners in each of those districts. The result was 98% of the state prison population in districts that were disproportionately White.

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