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Further research and methodology discussion

on Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York

by Peter Wagner
January 2005


Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York was the first report written to analyze the impact on the state legislative redistricting process from the Census Bureau's practice of counting prisoners as residents of the prison's location. Ironically, the same day the Importing Constituents report was originally released, the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment changed its proposed district plans. The Importing Constituents report was subsequently revised in May 2002 to reflect a discussion of these new "proposed" districts that later became law.

Since the original publication in April 2002, I've discovered new ways of discussing the original data and new additional sources of historical data. Subsequent analysis in conjunction with coverage of the report in a New York Times editorial, a New York Times column by Brent Staples, in the NAACP's The New Crisis magazine, and in City Limits magazine has produced a tremendous amount of material that was never published. Furthermore, when I received an Open Society Institute Soros Justice Fellowship to expand the New York research into a national policy project, I was introduced to the use of Geographic Information Systems and map making by Prison Policy Initiative GIS Analyst Rose Heyer. Together, we have created a series of maps based on the original data in the report. This article summarizes the research prepared at the request of journalists or pursuant to the Open Society Institute fellowship that extend the findings of the original report. Also included in this article are links to new data tables published for the benefit of other researchers interested in this important issue.

While the project examining the implications of how the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people has since expanded in scope far beyond New York and state legislative redistricting, this document restricts itself to discussing new research that expands upon the original question: Exactly how does the Census counting of prisoners as residents of the prison location in the year 2000 changed how political power is exercised in the New York state legislature?

While the analyses we've produced in other states have used different methodologies, we've ensured compatibility with our original New York report by remaining faithful to the original methodology. Notably, all statistics include only state prison populations as published and counted by the State Department of Correctional Services. (This project began too early in the redistricting process to identify correctional populations using only Census methods.) Similarly, all of our data was carefully collected to ensure that Department of Corrections statistics (which count Hispanic/Latino as a race) were compatible with Census data (that consider Hispanic/Latino an ethnicity of any race) as well as state legislative documents that use the categories of "Non-Hispanic White", "Non-Hispanic Black" and "Hispanic". For consistency and simplicity, we have used the terms "White" "Black" and "Latino" to refer to what the Census Bureau publishes as "Non-Hispanic White", "Non-Hispanic Black" and "Hispanic or Latino".

New detail on regional populations

The original report only aggregated the vast upstate region into one category. Since then, we have a new table (Figure 12) offering a breakdown of various statistics for the upstate rural and upstate urban areas as contrasted against other regions and the state as a whole. Going beyond the limited amount of data provided in the original Figure 7, is a new Figure 14 providing additional detailed analysis of county demographics by race and ethnicity as well providing details on Latino incarceration.

Only 24% of prisoners in New York are from the upstate region, but 91% of prisoners are incarcerated there. More specifically, only 10% of prisoners are from rural upstate counties in New York, but 75% of the state's prisoners are housed in such counties. These upstate rural counties are predominantly white in population, even when the non-voting prison populations are included.[1]

In August 2003, Gannett News Service reported on a new analysis of upstate New York's Census data by Rolf Pendall of the Brookings Institution, Upstate New York's Population Plateau: The Third-Slowest Growing 'State':

"Almost 30 percent of new residents who came to Upstate New York in the 1990s didn't make the trip by choice, and they didn't move into subdivisions or houses on secluded cul-de-sacs. They were inmates making their new homes in prison cells, according to a new report on population trends in upstate."[2]

To illustrate how comparatively large the prison population is in some rural counties, and how large a percentage of the Census-reported Black population is actually resident not of the county but of the prisons, Rose Heyer made two maps based on the original report's Figure 7: Percent of each county's reported population that is prisoners and Percent of each county's reported Black population that is in prison

New detail on districts and districting

In order to facilitate other research and articles about the affected districts, we created Figure 13, an additional data table of Senate district demographics. The table allows researchers to ascertain the racial/ethnic makeup of each district in additional detail as well as to discover details about the Latino incarceration in each district.

To explain the population-based regional gerrymanders in the New York Senate, we created a graphical briefing that explains Chapter VI in the original report: Gerrymandering and relying on the miscount of prisoners combine to violate the U.S. Constitution in New York. To show visually how prison populations influence how district lines are drawn, and by extension how a prison district's political influence spills over in to other districts, we created How prison counts affect state districting boundary lines utilizing Assembly District 114 (Chris Ortloff, R), and it's more than 9,000 prisoners as the start of its analysis.

Starting in the extremities of the state, counting prisoners as rural residents "sets in motion a ripple effect that eventually would reduce the Republican electorate in competitive districts closer to New York City." One likely place to see such a shift would be in the hotly contested Senate District 34. As illustrated in Border districts hang in the balance of Census counting decisions, Small changes in the boundary lines mean huge electoral effects

Two of Senators discussed in the Importing Constituents report, Senators Volker and Nozzolio, heads of the Committees on Codes and Crime, respectively, were in the news a lot because of their outspoken opposition to reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The prisons in their districts together account for more than 17% of the state's prisoners,[3] so we prepared detailed profiles of Senator Volker's district and Nozzolio's district including how many are incarcerated for drug offenses.

The upstate rural counties that contain the majority of the prisons are predominantly white in population, even when the non-voting prison populations are included. Using some of our new methods, we developed a way to talk about the racial composition of the districts that house prisoners as well: 98% of New York's prison cells are in disproportionately White Senate districts

Similarly, although the original report described that upstate New York is largely Republican and New York City is largely Democratic, we were unable to be more precise about how this intersected with prison populations. In further research, we found that 69% of New York State's prison cells are in Republican Assembly Districts and 98% of NY's prison cells are in Republican Senate Districts.

New historical incarceration rate data

Some of the original research on New York's incarceration rates went back only to 1980. We've since extended that research back to the start of New York's incarceration boom in the 1970s.

New York State has experienced tremendous growth in both the size of its prison population and the percentage of citizens incarcerated since 1970. Thirty years ago, New York incarcerated 69 out of every 100,000 citizens. By 2000, New York was incarcerating 377 out of every 100,000 residents -- a more than 5-fold increase.[4]

The already sizable racial disparity between Black and White incarceration in New York State grew from 1970 to 2000. The number of people in state prison in New York grew by 58,887 from 1970 to 2000, but 85% of this growth was in Black and Latino prisoners.[5]

As it has elsewhere in the United States, the "War on Drugs" in New York has focused on minorities. In New York State from 1980 to 2000, the number of Whites admitted to prison for drug law violations increased only 86%. For Blacks, the number increased 1,197%, and for Latinos 1,167%. In 2000, Blacks were sent to prison in New York for drug law violations at a rate 34.5 times higher than Whites. The Latino rate is 25.7 times higher than the White rate. (See Table 1) As a result, in a state that is 62% White[6], Blacks and Latinos account for 93% of prison sentences for drug offenses in New York State.[7]

Table 1. New York prison admissions for drugs, 1980 and 2000[8]
Drug Commitments, 1980 Drug Commitments, 2000 Population, 1980 Population, 2000 Rate per 100,000, 1980 Rate per 100,000, 2000 Number of times more like to be sent to prison for a drug offense in 2000 than Whites
White 283 526 13,164,734 11,760,981 2.1 4.5 N/a
Black 335 4346 2,299,127 2,812,623 14.6 154.5 34.5
Latino 260 3295 1,659,300 2,867,583 15.7 114.9 25.7

New historical data on prison construction

Newly published research by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that New York State's pattern of building all of its prisons in the upstate region goes back even further than 1982 as discussed in Importing Constituents. While the portion of New York State's prisoners that come from New York City has remained near the current 66%,[9] all of the 43 new prisons built in New York since 1976 have been built upstate.[10]


This research was supported by a grant from the Soros Justice Fellowship Program of the Open Society Institute.

I thank Brenda Wright of the National Voting Rights Institute for the inspiration to put all of this new research in one place. I am indebted to Rose Heyer for recognizing the potential of GIS to answer the questions posed in Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York and then for developing a methodology for locating prisons in the Census data. And finally, this article relies extensively on 1970 Department of Correctional Services data, which I would not have had access to without the generous assistance of Ann Fisher in retrieving this information from the state archives in Albany.


[1] See Importing Constituents, Figures 7 and 14. Only 4 counties in New York City and Westchester have proportionately smaller non-Hispanic white populations than the state as a whole. Thirty- three of the 45 rural counties are at least 90% non-Hispanic white, and all but one are at least 80% non-Hispanic white. However, this relies on Census figures assigning prison populations to upstate counties. Franklin County for example, is 6.2% Non-Hispanic Black according to the Census, but 86% of that Black population is in the five state prisons in the county.

[2] Gannett News Service, August 24, 2003

[3] Prison population data from Importing Constituents Figure 10 divided by the prison population total of 71,466.

[4] Based on analysis of 1970 and 2000 Department of Correctional Services and Census Bureau reports. The 1970 prisoner data is from Department of Correctional Services, Characteristics of Inmates Under Custody 1970, table 1A. (On file with Prison Policy Initiative). The 2000 prison data is from Department of Correctional Services, "The Hub System: Profile of Inmates Under Custody on January 1, 2000, table 1. The 1970 state population is from New York State Historical Yearbook, Resident Population1, Total and Nonwhite, New York State by County -- 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000, Table A-6. The 2000 state population is from Census 2000 Summary File 1, Table P001001, Total Population.

[5] Id.

[6] U.S. Census 2000 Summary File 1, Table P004005, Total population: Not Hispanic or Latino; Population of one race; White alone divided by Table P004001, Total population: Total.

[7] This calculation is based on Department of Correctional Services, Characteristics of New Commitments, 2001, Table 7.8, columns for the year 2000, summing the figures for Black and Hispanic and dividing by the sum of the columns for White, Black, Hispanic and Other.

[8] Consistent with Department of Correctional Services counting practices, these statistics are all for Non-Hispanic Blacks and Non-Hispanic Whites. 1980 drug commitment data is taken from Justice Policy Institute, New York State of Mind? Higher Education vs. Prison Funding in the Empire State, 1988-1998, Table 2. 2000 drug commitments is taken from Department of Correctional Services Characteristics of New Court Commitments, 2001, Table 7.8, columns for the year 2000. 1980 Census population is from Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For The United States, Regions, Divisions, and States, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2002, Table E-03. 2000 population is from U.S. Census 2000 Summary File 1, Table P8.

[9] In 1970, 61% of prisoners come from New York City. In 1985, it was 70% and in 2000, 66%. See Department of Correctional Services, Characteristics of Inmates Under Custody 1970, table IIA and Characteristics of Inmates Under Custody 1985-1992, table 12A, and The Hub System: Profile of Inmates Under Custody on January 1, 2000, page i.

[10] The Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2000 (published as James J. Stephan and Jennifer C. Karberg, Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 2003) includes the question "In what year was the original construction completed on this facility (if more than one building, provide the year for the oldest building currently used to house inmates)?" The raw data from this survey is published by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. The relevant parts of that dataset have been republished as Prison populations on the Prisoners of the Census website. Analysis of this data reveals that no new state prisons have been opened in New York City since 1976, but 43 state facilities have opened since then outside the city. The location of each prison was determined by previous research and the New York State Department of Correctional Services Facility Listing. According to the Department of Correctional Services county classifications used in this analysis, the suburban New York counties of Suffolk, Rockland and Nassau contain no state prisons. There are 3 prisons in suburban Westchester County, but one of them (Sing Sing) opened in 1825 and the other two facilities opened in 1933.

Meet us

  • April 22, 2015:
    Executive Director Peter Wagner will be at Colby College in Waterville Maine. Detail TBA.
  • May 11, 2015:
    Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy will be in NYC for the book launch party for Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works at 67 Orange. The party — and the royalties from the book — are to benefit the Prison Policy Initiative.

Not near you?
Invite us to your city, college or organization.


  • April 22, 2015:
    Executive Director Peter Wagner will be at Colby College in Waterville Maine. Detail TBA.
  • May 11, 2015:
    Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy will be in NYC for the book launch party for Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works at 67 Orange. The party — and the royalties from the book — are to benefit the Prison Policy Initiative.

Not near you?
Invite us to your city, college or organization.


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