Census count of prisoners problematic


April 1 is considered “Census Day” by the Census Bureau, because wherever a person is living on that day is where the Census Bureau says they should be counted. But to the average person, April 1 is April Fools’ Day. If someone tells you that the Census Bureau has figured out a way to count prisoners so that resources and political power are allocated properly and fairly, then they should immediately follow with…”April Fools!” 

Every 10 years in March, the U.S. Census Bureau mails Census questionnaires to every household. According to Census Bureau representatives, the 2010 Census form has been narrowed down to 10 quick and easy questions. Although many of the questions have been drastically scaled down compared to the 2000 Census, there’s still that number-one most important question: How many people live in each house, apartment, condo, group home, etc.?

Included in those tabulations are prison inmates.

After the information is gathered by the Census Bureau, the federal government then determines the need to allocate resources for Medicaid, energy assistance, Unemployment Insurance programs, highway planning and construction, job training, health care, school programs like Head Start and the school lunch program, and many additional services too numerous to list here. 

In addition to resources for services, every 10 years, after the Census data is collected, the nation redraws its political districts based on the results. According to a study conducted by Aleks Kajstura of the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for prisoners                 throughout the United States, “The Census Bureau is counting the large population of incarcerated people in the wrong place. A legal residence is the place that people choose to be and do not intend to leave; and because prison is not voluntary, it cannot be a residence.

“Indeed,” states Kajstura, “Article VII, section 2 of the Minnesota Constitution states that ‘no person loses residence…while confined in any public prison.’ This leads Kajstura to conclude that, “when redistricting legislative districts, Minnesota should use data that are consistent with the state constitution and stop basing legislative districts on prison populations.”

According to Shari Burt, communication director for the Minnesota Correctional Facility Stillwater in Bayport, Minnesota, as of January 2010, the 10 Minnesota state correctional facilities hold about 9,619 inmates. Unless these prisoners have life sentences without parole, in most cases, once released, they will return to their original homes.

But the Census count will not reflect this fact.

In order to convey a better idea of the negative impact this can have on allocation of resources to various communities, let’s do the math using the Census Bureau’s formula. Each person counted in the Census is worth an estimated $1,100 in federal services multiplied by 10 years. If we round that number off to an even 10,000 inmates multiplied by $1,100 and then multiply it by 10 years, we get a sum total of $110,000,000.

Also according to Burt, 35.3 percent of the state’s 9,619 prisoners are Black inmates. That 35.3 percent translates into 3,396 Black inmates, which, multiplied by $1,100 each over 10 years, equals $37,350,577 in total government services funding not going to benefit most of those Black inmates (once released), their families, and the communities they have lived in and will likely live in again.

While being artificially represented by a politician they didn’t vote for and couldn’t if they wanted to, inmates are powerless on many accounts, the first being that they cannot vote while incarcerated. Secondly, they don’t even get to complete the Census form because it’s filled out for them by the prison staff without the inmate’s input.

Ultimately, if and when prisoners are released back into society and they return to the (usually urban) communities they once called home, resources that should be there for them are actually in the rural prison districts where they were counted, along with the political power inflated by their numbers when counted as residents of prison districts.  

Normally, after the Census data is collected it is released one year later in the summer to state and local governments. By then it is usually too late for them to make any necessary changes to the prison data that could improve the redistricting process.

However, according to Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, an agreement has been reached by the Census Bureau Director Robert Groves and Representative William Lacy Clay, Jr., of St. Louis, Missouri’s First District. Clay is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives.

The Census Bureau has now agreed to step up the time for the release of Census data to May instead of the summer of 2011. Rep. Clay urged the Bureau to accelerate the release of data for redistricting purposes, saying, “Streamlining release of the prison counts will assist states and local governments that have been struggling to correct distorted redistricting data.”

This earlier release of data may allow states like Minnesota to remove the prison counts from those districts with large prison populations; however, it still won’t send those resources to the prisoners’ home districts unless legislation is in place to correct it before Minnesota’s redistricting process begins in 2011.

Also, according to Kajstura’s Minnesota prison study, the fact remains that without prisoner counts as padding, three Minnesota House districts- (56A – Julie Bunn, 20A – Andrew Falk and 26B Patti Fritz) -will be missing more than three percent of their required minimum population of about 36,713 residents. The purpose of the redistricting is to create equal voting territory, but “the systematic practice of counting incarcerated people in the wrong part of the state leads to unequal, unfair, and undemocratic districts,” says Kajstura. (All data in Kajstura’s Minnesota Prison report is based on the 2000 Census.)

During Census Director Groves’ visit to Minneapolis on February 18, the MSR asked him if the Bureau will have the prison count issue worked out in time to correct for redistricting and the fair allocation of federal resources. Groves responded, “I’m not sure we’ll ever get it perfect, because each of the situations around the country is different. Getting it right depends on a national discussion we need about how we want prisoners counted. So part of it is that issue, and that hasn’t really happened.”


To read Aleks Kajstura’s just-released report on Minnesota prisons, visit the Prison Policy Initiative website at www.prisonersofthecensus.org.    

James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to jlstroud@spokesman-recorder.com.