Incarcerated on Census Day: How even brief jail and prison stays can last a decade
Length-of-stay data from prisons and jails offers yet another reason why counting incarcerated people as correctional facility “residents” doesn’t make sense.
by Ginger Jackson-Gleich, June 2, 2021
Should the Census count boarding school students at their parents’ addresses or at their schools? Where should it count military personnel deployed overseas? To determine where to count people with atypical living situations, the Census Bureau relies on its “usual residence rule,” which instructs that people be counted where they “live and sleep most of the time.” However, application of the rule isn’t entirely consistent. While the Bureau treats boarding school students and deployed military members as residents of their home addresses (despite being away from those addresses for long periods of time), it counts incarcerated people away from their homes, as residents of the correctional facilities where they are detained. This discrepancy persists despite the fact that many incarcerated people are away from home for shorter periods than are boarding school students or deployed military personnel — and despite the fact that many people in jails and prisons do not actually live and sleep most of the time at the place where they happen to be detained on Census Day.1
Three-quarters of people in jails are released within three days
Consider our nation’s jails, where approximately 30% of incarcerated people are held in the United States on any given day. The American Jail Association has reported that 75% of people entering U.S. jails are released within 72 hours. Likewise, in 2019, the average stay for someone in jail was 26 days. (Importantly, there is no national figure on the median time served in jails, but it is likely far shorter than 26 days, given that many people spend only hours or a few days in jail, and because averages can be heavily skewed by the small number of people who remain there for long periods.) This data makes clear the error in the Bureau’s thinking when it comes to tabulating people in jails: the vast majority of people who happen to be in a jail on Census Day actually “live and sleep most of the time” somewhere other than that jail.
Many people in prison stay less than a year, and those who stay longer move around
Next, look at state prisons, where more than half of all people incarcerated in the United States are held. Although people generally stay longer in prisons than in jails, a study of the people released from state prison in 2018 showed that 20% had served less than six months and therefore did not live and sleep in prison most of the time. In addition, 42% of people released from state prison that year served less than one year.
Even among people serving longer sentences–those who do eat and sleep in a prison most of the time–it is quite often the case that they move around frequently while incarcerated. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported that approximately three-quarters of incarcerated people serve time in more than one prison facility (including approximately 12% who serve time in five or more facilities) before release. Thus, even for those with longer sentences, it often makes little sense to count them as residents of the particular facility where they are detained on Census Day.
Importantly, the existence of life sentences does not justify the practice of counting incarcerated people as prison residents either. For one thing, it is relatively rare for people to go to prison and never return home. Around 14% of people in prison are serving life sentences (including those serving “virtual” life sentences of 50+ years),2 including 3.6% serving life without any possibility of parole. In addition, even states like California, Delaware, and Nevada that have very high rates of life sentences among their incarcerated populations have made the choice to count incarcerated people (including those serving life sentences) in their home communities.
Inconsistencies across populations
Incarcerated people fall into an atypical category for Census purposes, but so do many other Americans. And inconsistencies in how the Census treats these various groups drive home why it makes no sense to count incarcerated people as permanent residents of prisons and jails. For example, snowbirds–people who travel seasonally between multiple residences–are counted wherever they determine they live and sleep most of the time, regardless of where they are on Census Day. As mentioned earlier, military service members who are deployed overseas (who are away for an average of nearly 8 months) are also counted at their home addresses. Consider the differences in how youth are counted: Boarding school students are counted at their home addresses, but children in juvenile correctional facilities are counted as residents of the places where they are detained (despite the fact that two-thirds of them stay for six months or less). As we have said before: incarcerated people are uniquely singled out to be counted in the wrong place.
As redistricting processes begin across the country, discussions about where to count incarcerated people are likely to arise in every state. When they do, we hope people will remember that there are many reasons to count incarcerated people at home: prison gerrymandering siphons political power from urban communities and communities of color, it dilutes local representation, and it creates an inaccurate picture of community populations generally. To top it off, many incarcerated people are actually away from their home addresses for shorter periods of time than other groups that are counted at home. It’s time to stop treating incarcerated people as residents of the particular facility where they are held on Census Day.
Of course, the fact that 14% of the people in prison are serving a life sentence is unconscionable and wildly out of step with the rest of the world. It is particularly concerning that the incidence of this type of sentence is increasing. However, it is important to note that the vast majority of people in prison are not serving life sentences and will return home. ↩