Prison System in America

A. Coercive Mobility and Counting Prisoners

In 21st-century America, imprisonment typically moves people out of large urban centers and into rural communities. This has major implications for electoral apportionment and financial distributions. The census general rule is to count people in their usual residence, “the place where they live and sleep most of the time.” The usual residence need not be the same as a person’s legal or voting residence, and a person need not be there at the time of the literal census. The person can take a vacation and still count at home, or even work overseas and still count at home.

The Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of the town that contains the prison in which they are housed. This practice reduces the population of communities where most prisoners originate (usually urban, low-income, minority communities) and swells the population of rural communities that host prisons. When prisoners are counted as residents of the prison town, it leads to misleading portrayals of which counties are growing or declining. Urban and black communities are the losers in the census count, since congressional apportionment of services, grants, funds, poverty relief, welfare, and so forth are based on census figures.

An accurate count of the population is used to apportion voting representation, draw political boundaries, and allocate state and federal funds among local and state governments. Mass incarceration distorts this fundamental tool of representative democracy. In the 1990s, 30% of new residents in upstate New York were prisoners. About 200 counties in the United States have more than 5% of the population in prison. Many have more than 20% of their population in prison. (In at least 21 Texas counties, inmates account for over 20% of the local population.) But when released, prisoners usually return to the community they call home. Whatever benefits accrue to a jurisdiction by virtue of its population, urban communities with high incarceration rates are losing. Conversely, rural counties with prisons are getting more than their fair share.

The official constitutional purpose of the census is political apportionment. About 12% of all African American men live in prison. Most of them are apportioned to districts that do not reflect the interests of their home communities or their personal political concerns. Significant densities of prisoners in state legislative districts are important because most criminal justice policy is made at the state level. Each free resident of a rural district with prisons gets a larger voice in the state capital than free residents in urban districts that have high numbers of residents in prisons. Prisons inflate the political clout of every real rural constituent. And at the state level, counting urban residents as rural residents dilutes urban voting strength and increases the weight of a vote in rural districts.

Larger places (those with larger populations) receive a correspondingly larger share of government resources. The primary measure of size for determining resource distribution is the official census count. The coercive mobility of offenders creates a consistent distortion in funding formulas such that rural counties come out ahead of urban counties that send them prisoners. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distributes some $60–70 million annually to poor Appalachian communities via the Appalachian Regional Commission, and population is a distribution factor—so rural communities with prisons have an advantage over those without prisons. The USDA does not intend to reward prison construction, but that is the result.

It is estimated that the total cost of counting prisoners in their prison communities rather than their home communities runs between $50 and $250 per person, and averages about $100 or more per prisoner for the local community where they are housed. When a jurisdiction plans to open a new 1,000-bed prison, it can generate at least $100,000 in new “unearned” revenues that accrue simply from counting the prisoners. That $100,000 doesn’t sound like much, but it can mean a new fire truck, a renovation for a youth center, or a computer upgrade for a municipality. In sparsely populated areas, large prisons in small towns can result in significant distortions of the local population. A new 500-bed prison can yield $50,000 in new revenue. The most dramatic impact can be seen in towns like Florence, Arizona, with a free population of about 5,000 and another 12,000 in at least three prisons. State and federal funds specifically linked to the prison population are estimated at $4 million annually. This has tempted other towns to follow the path toward prison hosting.

Another effect of coercive mobility and counting prisoners where they are held is on the calculation of per capita income, which is figured by dividing the total community income by the total population. When prisoners account for a substantial proportion of the population, the apparently low per capita income makes that community more competitive for U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants aimed at low-income areas. The appearance of greater need results in those communities getting more than their fair share. For example, in Virginia, distribution of K–12 education aid uses a formula based on county population. Several years ago, according to the Census Bureau, Rural Sussex County, which has a population that is 19% inmates, received $115,000 extra as a result of the imprisoned population. Henrico County (Richmond) loses roughly $200,000 as a result of the “exported” prisoner population. And because Latinos and blacks are imprisoned at 4–8 times the rate of whites, where incarcerated people are counted has significant implications for how black and Latino populations are reflected in the census.

Prison towns gain political clout through enhanced population, while the urban areas from which they come are further deprived through the loss of political influence and resources. When prison communities are credited with large, externally sourced populations of prisoners—who are not local residents—it turns the “one person, one vote” principle on its head. Prison towns do not share a “community of interest” with urban prisoners or their loved ones or neighborhoods. This phenomenon is unique to the new landscape of 21st-century corrections.

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