As Census Nears, How to Count Inmates Is Debated

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

NEW YORK -- Elizabeth O'C. Little, a Republican state senator, represents a rural Upstate district larger in square miles than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. But more than 13,500 of her constituents are not living there by choice, they could not vote for her if they wanted to, and most will leave the first chance they get.

Those unwilling constituents are incarcerated in one of 13 prisons -- 12 state and one federal -- that have given her district the nickname "Little Siberia." Without the prisoners, the district, which stretches to the Canadian border, may not have the minimum population required to earn a seat in the state Senate.

And while the inmates live behind bars, there is a recurring question as to whether prison is where they actually "reside."

In Little's opinion, the inmates reside in her 45th District, and her district is where they should be counted as residents during the 2010 Census.

"I think the inmates, like everyone, should be counted at their place of residence on that particular day," Little said. She said the inmates are no different than other temporary residents -- students living in dormitories, or developmentally disabled people in a center -- living away from their permanent addresses but counted where they reside on Census Day, April 1, 2010.

But for some civil liberties groups and the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, which has analyzed the last census numbers, counting inmates in prisons distorts population numbers in New York and several other states. Rural areas are shown to be more populous than they are, these critics say, while urban areas -- which produce most of the inmates -- are routinely under-counted.

States and counties rely on population numbers from the census to draw their legislative districts. In New York and some other states, Republicans continue to have clout in legislatures because they are elected from safely conservative, rural districts even as those areas lose people. The exception to that population decline: inmates, whose numbers have grown because of tough mandatory sentencing laws.

"It's systemic distortion," said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative. "You have a disproportionately black and Hispanic male population that is counted in the wrong spot."

In Albany, Alice Green, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Justice, which works on criminal justice issues, said that "when I saw the huge number of African Americans in some of these counties, I was shocked."

"In Upstate New York in some of the counties, the [black] people in prison outnumber the free African Americans," said Green, who is from an Adirondack mining town and earned her doctorate in criminal justice in Albany. Because the prisoners cannot vote but are counted as constituents, she said, "they are not represented, and they are totally exploited."

"The people elected in those districts with high prison populations are more conservative and support more mass incarcerations and the existence of prisons," Green said. "They use the numbers to get elected, but they don't represent [the prisoners'] interests."

The question of how to properly count prisoners has been a long-standing concern for the NAACP. "It's been troubling us for quite some time," said Hilary O. Shelton, a vice president and director of the Washington office.

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