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Counting Prisoners: Upstate New York Seeks Political Boost

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

If someone is behind bars in a jail far away from home, how should they be counted by the state? The controversial prisoner census issue splits largely along an urban and rural divide. New York City politicians are pushing to end the practice of counting prisoners where they’re jailed. But others think the mostly upstate prisons deserve the boost in political power that comes with counting prisoners there. Lawmakers need to settle the issue before political redistricting efforts get underway next year. In a collaboration between WNYC and North Country Public Radio, reporters Beth Fertig and David Sommerstein bring us both sides of the issue.

Click here for more on the prisoner politics of the Census.

This March, the 2010 Census count begins, a process required by the Constitution every 10 years, which helps, primarily, in determining the number of seats each state gets in Congress. But what happens if someone is in a prison far from home? How should he be counted by the state? The controversial prisoner census issue splits largely along an urban and rural divide.


The Ogdensburg Correctional Facility in upstate New York houses almost 500 inmates who are counted as part of Ogdensburg’s population. Critics say this creates “phantom constituents” that don't play a role in the community’s civic life.

New York City politicians are pushing to end the practice of counting prisoners where they’re jailed. But upstate, where the majority of prisons are located, politicians think they deserve the boost in political power that comes with counting prisoners. Lawmakers need to settle the issue before political redistricting efforts get underway next year.

Seven hours north of New York City, along the St. Lawrence River, is the bucolic city of Ogdensburg. If you’re driving into the city across the bridge from the Canadian side, the first thing you see isn’t the bustling marina or quaint riverside shops and restaurants, but the barbed wire of a state sex-offender lockup. Then you see two more state prisons, which employ more than 500 people in an area desperate for jobs.

One resident, Chuck Kelly, who is the publisher of the Ogdensburg Journal, has been following developments here for 55 years, and is a supporter of bringing prisons to Ogdensburg. He laments the loss of factories like Diamond National, Standard Shade Roller, and Brecker Moore, which employed residents all along the river.

"We have the second lowest per capita income in the whole 62 counties of the state of New York," he says. "We’re poverty. There’s no other way to tell you that."

When a state psychiatric center here downsized in the 1970s and 1980s, Kelly says 1,000 jobs were lost. He led a fight to replace them with two prisons at a time when other places were fighting to keep jails away.

"The truth of the matter is New York City and the metropolitan areas didn’t want them. We needed the jobs, so we went after those jobs," Kelly says.


Chuck Kelly, civic booster and publisher of the Ogdensburg Journal.

Today, the area also benefits from a little extra political representation. About 1,000 inmates, mostly from cities, with no voting rights, are counted as Ogdensburg residents. If the town benefits, Kelly says, it’s just compensation for the public security risk of housing criminals.

Democratic State Sen. Darrel Aubertine represents five prisons, including the two in Ogdensburg. He says the prisons use water, sewers, local courts, and other infrastructure. "That, in part, is paid for by those inmates being counted in this region," Aubertine says.

Aubertine says he’ll vote against Sen. Eric Schneiderman’s bill, which would require prisoners to be counted in their home community rather than the district where they are imprisoned. So will Republican Sen. Betty Little, whose district includes 12 prisons with 13,000 prisoners. "The purpose of the census is to take a picture of a certain period of time," Little says. "That picture shows who is living where."

Little argues that if the census includes inmates it should also include college students, nursing home residents, and rehab patients. "I believe they should be counted where they are as they always have been and you shouldn’t single out an inmate population over these other populations," Little says.

Critics of this argument say college students vote, work, and live in the community, but inmates do not.

Peter Wagner is the executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative and says prison districts are padded with inmates who don’t actually live there, and that affects policy and voting. "The result is you’ve seen upstate New York speak with one voice on prisons and criminal justice issues in a way that they haven’t been able to speak on any other issues of concern to upstate," Wagner says.

One example that comes up in this debate is the Rockefeller drug law reforms, signed by Gov. David Paterson last spring, which aim to end mandatory drug sentencing. Most lawmakers with prisons in their district voted against the reforms. But this spring, politics could explode with upcoming budget battles. The inmate population is down and the Paterson aims to close one of Ogdensburg’s prisons and two others nearby, putting 500 jobs at stake.

Senators Aubertine and Little, along with local lawmakers, are rallying to fight the cuts. At a recent town hall meeting in nearby Massena, town supervisor Joe Gray says Albany is balancing the budget on upstate’s back.

"It was okay to ‘dump’ the prisoners on us 25 or 30 years ago. Now it’s okay to take them away. We certainly are pretty important to the state and I think the state owes us something back," Gray says.

Today, the majority of New York State's leaders are from New York City and many upstate New Yorkers feel what little political power they have is draining away. So, if counting prisoners in their districts helps them keep a toe-hold in Albany, then they'll take it.

Click here for Beth Fertig's look at the prisoner politics of the Census.

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