Our first chance to end prison gerrymandering in the 2030 Census

The 2030 Census should count incarcerated people at home; tell them to start that change now.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 31, 2022

The next Census is still eight years away but the work to prepare for it has already begun, and so have our efforts to convince the Census Bureau to finally count incarcerated people as residents of their homes instead of prison cells. Earlier this month, the Bureau asked for public comment on areas it can improve upon in the 2030 Census. This is our first chance to ask the Bureau to build on its progress during the 2020 Census, and finally end this problem nationwide. And there are good reasons for it to do so. Prison gerrymandering is a relatively new problem, created by exploding prison populations and an outdated way that the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people, and it creates significant challenges for the rapidly growing list of state and local governments working to fix this problem.

The problem

The Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of a prison, rather than at their homes shifts political representation to people who live near correctional facilities, at the expense of residents who live further away. (Importantly, this does not impact funding distribution.) In doing this, the Census Bureau gives people who live close to prisons a louder voice in government and the decisions made in their state and community.

A bit of history

We’re often asked, “If the Census Bureau has counted incarcerated people this way since the country was founded, why change now?” The simple answer is: the nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration changed everything.

The prison boom began in the 1970s, but its impact on the 1980 Census was modest from a national viewpoint. In fact, the Bureau didn’t even mention incarcerated household members on the census form until the 1990 Census. But by 2000, the incarceration rate was more than four times higher than two decades earlier, and this problem was unavoidable. State and local officials and advocates began to notice that areas containing prisons began to “grow”, and so did their influence in government.

The Bureau’s application of its “residence rule” has failed to keep up with an evolving country and its needs

The Census Bureau often cites its interpretation of its “residence rule” — which says people should be counted where they eat and sleep most of the time — to justify counting incarcerated people in prison cells. However, its interpretation has evolved over the decades to keep pace with a changing society, however the way they count incarcerated people is still stuck in the 1700s.

Common assumptions about incarceration haven’t caught up with modern realities for incarcerated people. While the Census Bureau continues to count incarcerated people at their correctional facility for purposes of the census, the fact is, between short sentences and frequent transfers between facilities, many people in prison and jail do not actually live and sleep most of the time at the place they are incarcerated on Census day.

The way the Census counts incarcerated people is also out of step with how it applies the residence rule to other people in transitory living situations. For example, someone who is away from home for a military deployment for a year is counted at their home address, but someone incarcerated for just a few months is counted at the location of the correctional facility. Kids who live at boarding school are counted at their parents’ address while kids who have a short stay at a juvenile correctional facility are counted at the location of the facility.

The amount of time spent in a single location is a starting point, not an end-all-be-all for how the Census Bureau applies its residence rules. Most people who are away from home on Census day — even if they’re gone for a significant amount of time — are counted at home. The Bureau does this because it recognizes a person’s ties to their home and community are what really define a residence. It relies on family and community ties to count truck drivers, boarding school students, Congressional members, and military personnel at home. But the Census Bureau fails to apply the same rules to incarcerated people.

The Bureau is failing to keep up with evolving redistricting data needs

State and local governments — the most important redistricting data users — recognize how outdated the Census Bureau’s methodology is. During the 2000 redistricting cycle, many counties and municipalities that contained large prisons adjusted the data they received from the Census Bureau in order to avoid prison gerrymandering when drawing district lines. During the 2010 redistricting cycle, two states and over 200 local governments had taken action to fix this problem; and by the 2020 cycle, an additional 11 states had joined them. Altogether, nearly half of the country now lives in a city, county, or state that has taken on the burden of correcting the data it received from the Census to use in redistricting.

The Census Bureau has a duty to solve this problem. It is required to provide data that is fit for use in redistricting, a standard it is not meeting. While many states counties, and cities have taken it upon themselves to fix this problem, the Census Bureau, is the only agency that can provide a complete solution, and can do so far more efficiently than state or local governments, which often run up against roadblocks that the Census Bureau would not. For example, counting people incarcerated across state or county lines, matching Census race and ethnicity categories, and counting people in Bureau of Prisons facilities — an agency that has refused to cooperate with states. Additionally, there are states like Massachusetts where the state constitution prohibits unilateral action, Massachusetts explained in their 2014 resolution urging the Census Bureau to change the way it counts incarcerated people. States have shown incarcerated people can be counted at home, but the Census needs to take this proof of concept and apply it to its own count.

Looking to 2030

As the Census Bureau begins to plan for 2030, there are good reasons for it to change how it counts incarcerated people. By counting people as residents of a prison cell, instead of their home communities, prison gerrymandering reduces the say that most communities — particularly those hit hardest by mass incarceration — have in their government. The Bureau’s interpretation of its residence rules is out of date and treats incarcerated people differently than many other similarly situated groups. And finally, the Bureau is falling behind the emerging consensus on this issue; forcing hundreds of local governments and over a dozen states to take ad hoc steps to correct the redistricting data on their own. It is time for the Census Bureau finally count incarcerated people at home in the 2030 Census.

Now is our first opportunity to make our voice heard. We hope you’ll consider doing so.

How to submit your comments to the Census Bureau

This public comment period is the first chance members of the public have to call for an end to prison gerrymandering nationwide in the 2030 Census. As the Census Bureau explains:

As part of the planning efforts, the public is invited to share feedback on how the Census Bureau can improve the public’s experience during the 2030 Census. With this input, the Census Bureau aims to better reach and count historically undercounted people, overcome challenges and encourage everyone to respond to the 2030 Census. Public input is needed now so it can inform the Census Bureau’s decisions on the initial operational design, along with the findings of dozens of research projects underway.

You can send your comments in two ways:

  • Email the Census Bureau at DCMD.2030.Research@census.gov. Please include “FRN Response” in the subject line.
  • Go online to the online submission form. Then, click the green button “Submit a Formal Comment”.

Comments are Due November 15th.
Note: The Census Bureau asks that you clearly identify your comment with one of their provided topic choices. I suggest using “Reaching and motivating everyone” for comments on ending prison gerrymandering, but if your comment delves into the weeds of technical aspects of the count, you might also consider “New data sources”.

What’s coming up next?

Right now, the Census Bureau is in the early stages of planning for the 2030 Census. We expect the Bureau to focus deeper on issues related to prison gerrymandering in the next few years, but the problem cannot be ignored in the meantime.

Before this November 15 deadline, the Prison Policy Initiative will publish additional resources like this fact sheet; and we encourage you to check out our pathfinder guide to resources available on our site. And in the year ahead you can expect us to publish other fact sheets and explainers to prepare for the next stages of this effort.

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