Prison counts can mask economic troubles and defer calls for change

The Census Bureau's miscount complicates self-reflection in Vigo County and Terre Haute Indiana.

by Peter Wagner, February 13, 2011

My focus at the Prison Policy Initiative is on how the Census Bureau’s decision to count incarcerated people as residents of the prison’s location instead of as residents of their homes distorts the electoral process. But it’s also true that prison counts negatively impact planning in rural counties.

Six years ago, Rose Heyer and I wrote a report entitled Too big to ignore:
How counting people in prisons distorted Census 2000
that examined how the prison counts distorted county level statistics for total population, growth, race, ethnicity, gender and income. Our section on population growth appeared overly academic but may have been our most significant finding. Why? Because declining populations are often a sign of economic distress, and the increasing prison counts masked individual and regional problems. Our analysis of the 2000 Census found 56 counties that appeared to be growing but were actually losing population over the previous decade. Perhaps even more troubling, the misleading growth of West Texas counties with large prisons masked the consistent region-wide economic development problems faced in the region.

And that problem is repeating itself with the publication of this decade’s numbers:

At first glance, the Census Bureau statistics look pretty good. Vigo County’s population grew 1.9 percent to 107,848 in the 2010 count, up from 105,848 in 2000. Likewise, Terre Haute’s population jumped by 2 percent to 60,785 in the latest census, compared to 59,614 in 2000.

Initial stories about the Census in the Terre Haute paper were similarly celebratory of the population increase until I reached out to columnist Mark Bennett with whom I’d corresponded many times about census counts. This morning, he wrote:

But those increases contain an asterisk. Most of the growth can be attributed to the expansion of the Federal Correctional Complex and the additional inmates it now houses. (In the census, federal prison inmates count as residents of the community where they’re incarcerated.) In 2000, the local penitentiary held 1,764 prisoners at maximum- and minimum-security structures. A third facility was added in 2004. Thus, by Census Day 2010, Terre Haute’s federal inmate population had grown to 3,251, according to U.S. Bureau of Prisons statistics gathered by Peter Wagner of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative.

His column, OUTTA HERE: Community effort needed to reverse trend in under-18 population calls for the county to establish an exodus czar to work with city and county officials and the “many energetic, progressive organizations” to “mount a full-scale attack on a trend threatening its future”. That trend is the number of families leaving the area.

The Census is an essential part of our democracy and the redistricting process, but’s it’s also an important tool to help communities see themselves and plan their future. Counting incarcerated people in the wrong spot just makes that difficult job harder. Congratulations to Mark Bennett for using the confusing numbers as a way to mobilize his community.

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