by Peter Wagner, March 14, 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 — 92% — 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 15 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 92% figure, I calculated from Figure 15 that New York was 62% Non-Hispanic White. I then filtered Figure 15 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 92% of the state prison population in districts that were disproportionately White. You can also see this same analysis for Senate districts, where 98% of prisoners are incarcerated in disproportionately White Senate districts.


by Peter Wagner, March 7, 2005

State legislators in Georgia are currently redrawing the districts of Georgia’s Congressional delegation, but by relying on Census data that counts prisoners as residents of the prison location, they are unwittingly diluting the votes of Georgia residents who do not live near prisons.

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by Peter Wagner, February 28, 2005

On February 25, New York Deputy Minority Leader Senator Eric T. Schneiderman introduced S2754 to prevent the way the U.S. Census counts prisoners from distorting democracy in New York.

The U.S. Census counts prisoners as if they were residents of the prison location rather than of their pre-incarceration homes. Like most states, New York currently relies on Census Bureau data when drawing its legislative districts, but its constitution defines residence quite differently than the Census. The New York constitution reads that “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his presence or absence … while confined in any public prison.”

Many states have similar constitutional clauses, but until recently, states were unaware that by relying on Census Bureau data they were violating their own constitutions. The Census Bureau counts prisoners this way as a result of an outdated practice that predates modern uses of Census data for intra-state redistricting. There is currently a national movement to convince the Census Bureau to change how it counts prisoners, but states like New York and Illinois are showing that they are not hostage to Census Bureau counting decisions. As long as a state began planning early, it would be possible to adjust Census counts of prisoners prior to redistricting.

The New York bill requires the State Board of Elections to create a specially modified version of the Census Bureau’s redistricting data for use in congressional, state senate and state assembly redistricting. The various corrections agencies in the state would be required to submit home address information to the Board of Elections, who in turn would change the Census data so it would reflect New York’s prisoners being counted at home rather than at the prison location. The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment would then be required to use this corrected data in drawing new districts.

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by Peter Wagner, February 21, 2005

Back in 2000, the Census Bureau counted prisoners as if they actually lived in the town that contains the prison. According to recently published analysis, this administrative quirk reduced the population of the communities where most prisoners come from and swelled the population of the rural communities that host prisons. Each decade, census population data is used to draw legislative districts, so prisoners makes prison towns seem more populous — and therefore receive more political clout — than their population should have warranted.

Making matters worse, all states but Maine and Vermont bar state prisoners from voting, so prisoners are unable to influence the often pro-prison-expansion legislators whose clout they enhance. At the same time, the urban legislators who so frequently favor proven alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment see their population and political clout diminished.

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by Peter Wagner, February 14, 2005

On February 2, Illinois Deputy Majority Leader Representative Arthur L. Turner introduced the Prisoner Census Adjustment Act to prevent the current U.S. Census practice of counting prisoners as residents of the prison location from distorting democracy in Illinois. While other advocates have been working to convince the U.S. Census to start counting prisoners as residence of their pre-incarceration homes, Chicago-based attorney Dan Johnson-Weinberger has been working with Representative Turner to craft a state-based solution to ensure that future Illinois legislative districts match the actual population of Illinois communities.

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by Peter Wagner, February 7, 2005

The Census Bureau counts prisoners not at their homes but as if they were residents of the town that contained the prison. This administrative quirk reduces the population of the communities where most prisoners come from and swells the population of rural communities that house prisons. With the incarceration rate now 4 times higher than it was 20 years ago, and with prisons increasingly being built in communities far from where most prisoners originate, what was once a trivial matter is now a critical one.

When the Census began in 1790, uses for the data were limited. Population statistics were rarely used for planning purposes until the 20th century. It was not until the 1960s that state legislatures were required to periodically redraw legislative district lines to comply with the “One Person One Vote” rule of equal numbers of people in each legislative district. In 1790, the Census’ sole role was to count the number of people in each state to determine their relative populations for purposes of Congressional reapportionment. It didn’t matter — for purposes of comparing Nevada’ population to Utah’s — whether an incarcerated person was counted at home or in the Nevada State Prison, as long as they were counted in the right state. Census data is used very differently today than it was in 1790, and our society has changed radically, but the Census’ method of counting prisoners has unfortunately remained the same.

According to a series of “Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout” reports released in December, Nevada, Montana and Idaho rely on U.S. Census data to draw their legislative districts. Districts are redrawn each decade so that each districts is of equal size based on the number of people living there. Having equal numbers of people in each legislative district ensures that each person in that district has equal access to government. This concept is known as the “One Person One Vote” rule, but it breaks down when the U.S. Census data does not reflect the actual population of the state.

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by Peter Wagner, January 31, 2005

The National Voting Rights Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative have filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit highlighting the New York State legislature’s racially discriminatory redistricting practice of crediting rural white counties with additional population based on the presence of disenfranchised prisoners in upstate prisons. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is hearing the case of Muntaqim v. Coombe, a case brought by an African-American prisoner alleging that racial disparities in disenfranchisement of prisoners and parolees in New York violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The friend-of-the-court brief filed by the National Voting Rights Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative argues that the Court should consider the redistricting implications of disenfranchisement as part of the “totality of circumstances” which must be examined under the Voting Rights Act.

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by Peter Wagner, January 24, 2005

The Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York report was able to quantify the population loss to New York City from the Census Bureau practice of assigning prisoners residence to the prison location rather than their homes, and the report was able to determine how this benefits up-state prison districts. In 2000, New York City had 43,740 of its residents credited to the communities that contain prisons. As much as 7% of one upstate district’s population is prisoners. Counting prisoners as prison-town residents reduces the number of actual residents in these districts, enhancing the weight of a vote in those prison districts. By extension, this vote enhancement dilutes the votes of residents elsewhere in the state.

We know that compared to the state as a whole, New York City disproportionately sends people to prison, but what about specific neighborhoods in the city? The Importing Constituents report talks of the potential impact on the assumption that prisoners are evenly distributed in the city. Even with that assumption, there was a clear problem in need of a fix. But when the report was written, nobody knew exactly where in the city prisoners came from. The Census Bureau doesn’t collect this information, and the Department of Correctional Services does not publish this information in any more detail than the number of prisoners that come from New York City as a whole. As the Importing Constituents report said, prisoners are very likely concentrated in particular communities. This concentration would mean that specific districts suffer a measurable vote dilution beyond not receiving the same vote enhancement existing in the prison districts.

One recent analysis of prisoner origin in Brooklyn does suggest that prisoners are highly concentrated in origin. As part of a study looking to see where the state spends its criminal justice resources, Eric Cadora used judicial records to map the homes of prisoners from the Brooklyn borough sent to state prison in 2003. He found 35 blocks where more than $1million in state funds were spent to take people out of that community in 2003. Figure 1 is a map of Mr. Cadora’s research as published in the Village Voice. As Cadora used the figure of $30,000 per year to incarcerate someone, each of those 35 blocks would have at least 33 people sent to prison that year. The one “$5 million dollar block” would translate into 167 people that should have been credited by the legislature’s map makers to a single block in Brooklyn. (See Figure 1.) This map isn’t directly translatable to a redistricting analysis, but it does make the very strong case that prisoners are highly concentrated in origin. The clear message is that some communities in Brooklyn lose far more population to prison — and the Census counts of prisoners — than others.

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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.


by Peter Wagner, January 10, 2005

Our recent Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Montana report found one district that was almost 15% prisoners, a higher figure than in any other state legislative district yet discovered in the United States. 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.

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.

Susan Fox, the Legislative Services Division redistricting coordinator in Montana told the Missoula News that the report was “…. fascinating and important… I’ve never had anyone bring this up before.” In an editorial discussing the report, the Great Falls Tribune said how the Census Bureau counts prisoners is “worth re-examining before the 2010 Census-based reapportionment repeats the problem.”

The size and racial distribution of Montana counties are distorted by the Census practice. Almost 19% of Powell County’s population is in the Montana State Prison. Eighty-one percent of the Native American adults counted by the Census in the county are not local voting residents but disenfranchised prisoners from other parts of the state.

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