Prisons and the Census

Prisons and the Census

February 12, 2010 | Christopher Hartney, Senior Researcher, NCCD

The Census Bureau has taken the first step toward a more accurate way of counting prisoners. Historically the Census has considered prisoners residents of the town in which the prison is located rather than residents of the community where they lived before incarceration. Now, instead of automatically counting them in prison, most of which are located in rural areas, far form the urban centers where prisoners lived and will usually return, states will now be able to decide to not count them at all.

The Census Bureau has taken the first step toward a more accurate way of counting prisoners. Historically the Census has considered prisoners residents of the town in which the prison is located rather than residents of the community where they lived before incarceration. Now, instead of automatically counting them in prison, most of which are located in rural areas, far form the urban centers where prisoners lived and will usually return, states will now be able to decide to not count them at all.

This is a good first step toward the more complete solution—counting prisoners in their home communities. The current decision comes too late for the 2010 Census to prepare for that more complex accounting. Even this first step puts hundreds of thousands of individual person counts into play—political play.

Why is this important? According to the Constitution, the Census is the basis for allotting federal aid (this year, approximately $400 billion) and to determine a district’s number of Congressional seats. In other words, the Census is used to divvy up money and political power. And with 1.6 million Americans in prison, a lot is at stake. Counting prisoners in the often rural, less diverse, and more politically conservative prison towns steals resources and clout from where they are often needed most.

Further, prisoners are individuals who cannot vote, who are disproportionately Latino and African American, and who often have serious untended physical and mental health needs. In other words, they have already been disenfranchised on at least a couple of levels. Using them, voiceless and passive, to draw districts unfairly is one more way of exploiting them—one that has nothing whatever to do with crime or public safety.

In fact, allowing the practice of counting prisoners as residents in prison locations does not only weight votes inaccurately in Congress, but entices an investment in keeping prisons large and populous. The stronger that enticement, the more resistance there is to relying on more economical, just, and effective sanctions for crime control.

Christopher Hartney is a Senior Researcher at NCCD.