by Peter Wagner, April 2007
When the Census counts prisoners as residents of the counties where they are incarcerated, counties with prisons look bigger than they actually are. Legislators see their political power enhanced when they're not actually representing more constituents: generally, prisoners can't vote and don't participate in the communities where they are incarcerated. When released, they immediately return to their previous homes. Many state constitutions therefore state that prison cannot qualify as a residence.
Two groups lose political power because of the Census methodology: the urban communities where the prisoners come from, and rural communities without prisons. When one district in a county takes up more than its fair share of political power, residents in other districts are underrepresented and the whole county's democracy is distorted, sometimes severely.
This manual is intended to help residents of rural communities with prisons determine whether including prisoners in the population base harms their access to government, to quantify that harm, and to advocate for a better democracy. The language in this manual is targeted at county legislatures, but it is also applicable to other forms of district-based government at the regional, county and local level including city councils and school boards.
The easiest way to find out if prison populations are included in county's legislative districts is to ask. If they are excluded, no harm has been done to your local democracy. You can STOP and just make sure your county does the same thing in the future. (If your county says that they "included the prisoners but ...." check some of the common explanations in the District population deviations & split prisons article in the Appendix.)
This manual is written for people who know that prisoners are included in their county's legislative districts and want to calculate the harm done to their local democracy. Because of the complexity of this issue and the time that has passed since the most recent redistricting cycle, you can also use these instructions and tools -- although you may have to skip around -- to verify what you were told by the county legislature. Readers in this situation may find the Determining whether prisoners were included or excluded from districts with known populations article in the Appendix helpful.
The first section will cover some preliminary questions about the type of local government you have. This will determine how to measure the population distortion. Some kinds of local government will not be affected by prisoner miscount.
The second section of this manual will help you access and understand Census Bureau data on prison populations. We've developed an online tool that will help you identify the state and federal prisons in the Census Bureau data. This section will tell you which types of correctional facilities to include in your analysis and what to do about mistakes in the Census Bureau data. This will determine which prison populations are big enough to be significant in your county's population, and where the Census counted them. After getting this information, you will be able to work out which Census blocks in your county contain prisons.
The third section will help you determine which districts contain the Census blocks with the prisons. Then you will compare the number of actual residents in those districts with the number of prisoners, and determine whether political power in those districts has been distributed fairly. This will tell you how much your democracy has been affected by Census methodology.
The fourth section will discuss your options for activism and advocacy. Now that you know how much your local democracy has been affected, you can ask your leaders to redistrict so that everyone is represented fairly, and to make sure they do so after the next Census.
The creation of the Democracy Toolkit was supported by a grant from The After Prison Initiative of the Open Society Institute. Bill Cooper of FairData2000 generously provided us with the population and geographic coordinates of every census block with a correctional facility which constitutes the central piece of our Correctional Facility Locator. Tracy Huling, Dan Jenkins, Kelsey Kauffman and Greg Wright provided the critical inspiration to create a system that would allow rural residents to determine on their own -- without special software or training -- just how local democracy is distorted by the Census Bureau's inclusion of state and federal prisoners in rural county census blocks. The democracy toolkit has been in development for more than a year. We thank our interns, Arla Berman, JooHye DellaRocco, William Goldberg, Aleks Kajstura, Yugo Nakai, Meghan Peel, Justine Sheffler and Allison Tompkins for their hard work beta-testing earlier versions of the toolkit and Will Goldberg for his assistance improving the text.