Is it fair to count an inmate as a resident of the town in which they are imprisoned?
In the most recent Newsweek, writer Ben Adler peels back the layered benefits to prisons in upstate New York via the lens of his own family: in 1983, a summer resort run by his great-grandparents was transformed into Sullivan Correctional Facility. As New York state’s prison population swelled from 13,000 in 1970 to over 70,000 today, housing inmates from NYC became a lucrative business for otherwise destitute upstate towns. “Ironically, the prisoners—mostly low-income men of color—bring two things they themselves lack: economic and political power,” writes Adler. That’s because during the Census, those tens of thousands of prisoners are counted in the rural places in which they are imprisoned rather than their homes, even though they cannot vote. The result is an skewed diversion of legislative clout to sparsely-populated, rural towns — often called prison-based gerrymandering.
Now, the prison population is falling and communities such as Ogdensburg and Mineville fight tenaciously to keep their prisons open, New York assembly members have put together a bill to end a practice which The New York Times just called “a way of hijacking power from one part of the state to another.”
Last week, Delaware became the second state (after Maryland) to pass a bill that adjusts Census data so that inmates are counted at their home addresses rather than the prisons in which they temporarily reside. No such legislation is yet proposed in New Hampshire, but when a federal prison opens there next year, nearly 17 percent of the population will be behind bars—roughly 2,000 men (1,200 in the federal, 760 or so in the state prison) in a city of 10,000.