Counting Prisoners: The Population Politics of the Census

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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 how upstate New Yorkers see the issue.

Vilma Ortiz Donovan admits she wasn’t always a model citizen. She went to prison twice for selling cocaine, and was released last year after serving a three year sentence. “I was tired and I wanted something better,” she recalls. “I don’t want prison anymore, and I wanted to change.”

Since then, the 47-year-old got a job managing the front desk at the Fortune Society, which helps former prisoners connect with services. She also registered to vote for the first time. And she was surprised to learn that while incarcerated, her legal residence was the prison in Beacon, New York –- sixty miles away from her hometown of Huntington, Long Island.

“That makes no sense to me whatsoever,” she says, “because the resources that we need, the hospitals, the child-care centers, the education, all of that is going to a town where I’m not benefitting from it.”

Harlem's Vilma Ortiz Donovan says it’s not right that she was counted as part of the population of Beacon, New York while in prison because she isn’t from Beacon and didn’t benefit from its services.

Donovan isn’t the only one who finds that strange.

“There’s a fundamental injustice in taking people who have no real connection to the communities where the prisons are located and using them, even though they can’t vote, to inflate the population of those districts,” says State Sen. Eric Schneiderman. He’s introduced a bill to end what he calls prison-based gerrymandering. Schneiderman is a Democrat who represents Upper Manhattan and Riverdale. He points to estimates that half of the state’s 58,000 prisoners committed crimes in New York City.

“The districts that export prisoners, like my district in Upper Manhattan, those districts are districts with high crime rates, poverty,” he explains, “[and] are usually associated with bad schools and other resources. And yet we are denied the same fair representation we would get if our prisoners were counted as a part of our district.”

If they didn’t use prisoners to boost their count, Schneiderman claims seven districts with prisons wouldn’t even meet the minimum population requirements for a state Senate seat. Those districts are all rural and located way upstate. And most are held by Republicans.

State Sen. Dale Volker is one of them. His district is in western New York near Lake Erie, where about 9000 residents are prisoners. Volker doesn’t think he’d lose his seat if district lines are redrawn without the prisoners after this year’s Census. But he does think the bill is about politics. He sees it as a power grab by urban lawmakers to claim prisoners who don’t live in their districts either.

“How do we know where they should be located?” Volker asks. “The only place we know they’re going to be located is where they are. As I understand the bill, they want these people listed from the point of origin because they want more people listed wherever they came from -- Queens or Manhattan or wherever.”

Schneiderman acknowledges it will be hard to get Republicans onboard, and even some upstate Democrats. His bill would have to pass this year in order for lawmakers to change how they use the 2010 Census in drawing district lines. It would not have any effect on funding. But some supporters believe it could affect resources indirectly through political leverage.

Keith Massey, 59, often babysits for his four-year-old granddaughter Yasmin in his Harlem apartment, laughing as he tells her “no, goodbye!” as she tries to charm him into giving her candy. He’s a housing activist with the group Community Voices Heard, and can tell you what’s needed here. “We’re in need of new elevators or better kept elevators than the elevators we have because they break down almost on a daily basis,” he says.

Harlem housing activist Keith Massey thinks his district would benefit by having more population and more clout if prisoners from New York City were counted here instead of upstate while incarcerated.

If prisoners from Harlem were counted here instead of upstate, Massey thinks the whole district would benefit. “You would have legislators who would be sympathetic where they would advocate and vote for, I mean like they bailed out Wall Street. Why can’t you not bail out public housing?”

It’s hard to prove that counting prisoners in their districts of origin would lead to any big shakeups. But the issue of where to count them is now gaining national attention. The U.S. Census bureau plans to provide states with prison population data earlier than usual after the 2010 count, in case the states want to subtract those numbers when drawing their district lines.

Click here for David Sommerstein's look at how upstate New Yorkers see the issue.