Census Bureau should use forms, not administrative records, to count people in prison

by Peter Wagner, June 25, 2008

In May, I sent this letter to the Census Bureau asking it to use Census forms to count people in prison. In a step backwards for accuracy in the prison count, the Bureau is proposing to rely only on administrative records in 2010. –Peter Wagner

May 27, 2008

Diana Hynek
Departmental Paperwork Clearance Officer
Department of Commerce, Room 6625
14th and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230

Re: The Census Bureau’s plan to rely on administrative records to count incarcerated people in the 2010 Census

Dear Ms. Hynek,

I am writing out of concern that the Census Bureau, as announced in the Federal Register, plans to use administrative records to count people in prison in the 2010 Census. As you may know, the quality of the data the Census collected from prison populations in 2000 was deemed “poor” by the National Research Council and that the poor quality of the data derived in part from the Bureau’s higher than expected reliance on administrative records.[1] I am concerned that the decision to rely solely on administrative records in prisons will further decrease the accuracy of the 2010 and future Censuses.

Accurately counting the population in prison is increasingly important. Currently, there are more than 2 million people in prisons and jails. Since the 1980 Census, the percentage of Americans incarcerated in correctional facilities has increased four-fold, with more than 0.7% of Americans currently incarcerated. Certain demographic groups are disproportionately affected by these trends; for example, 11% of the population of African-American men in their 20s and 30s is currently incarcerated.

Three recent National Research Council reports have urged the direct enumeration of people in prison .[2] All three reports believed that direct enumeration would be more accurate than administrative records, and all three reports encouraged the use of a special form that asked for an alternative address. The first two reports made this recommendation to facilitate de-duplication where data is accidentally processed twice; and the third did so as part of a multi-step proposal to modernize how all populations are counted.

Unfortunately, a decision to rely solely on administrative records to count people in prison is a step in the wrong direction. The Bureau should be seeking to expand its direct enumeration in correctional facilities, not curtailing it.

Despite the concerns expressed by some Census Bureau officials, direct enumeration of prisoners can be both safe and appropriate. Although prison officials often warn of safety problems, social workers, volunteers and other civilians enter prisons quite frequently to no ill effect. Further, the Census Bureau’s own experience in 2000 suggests that direct enumeration of people in prison can produce higher quality data at lower cost.[3]

The National Research Council has repeatedly recommended that the Census Bureau create special forms optimized for each type of special housing. The Census Bureau should create such a form for people in correctional facilities and use it where ever possible.

Given that about 1% of all adults in the United States are expected to be incarcerated during the 2010 Census, increasing the accuracy of the prison count would have a large and positive effect on the overall accuracy of the 2010 Census.


Peter Wagner
Executive Director

Steve H. Murdock,
Director, U.S. Census Bureau


[1] See Constance F. Citro, Daniel L. Cork, and Janet L. Norwood, eds., The 2000 Census: Counting Under Adversity, National Research Council of the National Academies (Washington, 2004), p. 154-155.

[2] See Constance F. Citro, Daniel L. Cork, and Janet L. Norwood, eds., The 2000 Census: Counting Under Adversity, National Research Council of the National Academies (Washington, 2004) p. 156 and Daniel L. Cork, Michael L. Cohen, and Benjamin F. King, eds., Reengineering the 2010 Census: Risks and Challenges, National Research Council of the National Academies (Washington, 2004) p. 153 and Daniel L. Cork and Paul R. Voss eds., Once, Only Once, and in the Right Place: Residence Rules in the Decennial Census, National Research Council of the National Academies (Washington, 2006) p. 243

[3] See Annette Kondo, “At prison: census reactions of all stripes”, Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2000, p B1; “Headcount comes to prisons” by John Chrisofferson, Associated Press, April 4, 2000, reporting that “Connecticut counted more than 17,000 prisoners at 20 prisons … [and] … only a handful of Connecticut inmates refused to fill out the form, census and state officials said.”; Kevin Cantera, “Prison County: Census Takers Put Gloves On”, Salt Lake Tribune, May 16, 2000, p. A1 reporting that the prison population was more cooperative than Census or prison staff had assumed; and “Prison Cities Cash in on Census 2000”, About.com, May 1, 2000 reporting that people incarcerated at Folsom State Prison were more cooperative than the California public at large.

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