Press Release

Study Says Prison Populations Skew New York Districts;
City loses, rural legislators gain, from new districts

For immediate release
Contact: Peter Wagner,

Springfield, MA -- A Prison Policy Initiative report released today (April 22) says the proposed New York State legislative districts are based on miscounting urban prisoners as rural residents. "Legislative districts are supposed to be equal in size, but some districts contain 5,000 or more prisoners that should have been counted at home" said Assistant Director and author of the report, Peter Wagner. The Governor and the Legislature are currently debating how to draw the legislative districts for the next decade.

Prisoners aren't allowed to vote, but their presence in upstate communities swells the otherwise declining population of the region. With the prisoners, comes added clout in the state legislature. Common sense and the New York Constitution says that a prisoner doesn't actually live at the prison. But a quirk in how the national census counts population is creating a surprising big difference in New York for redistricting. Because the district lines are not based on actual population, the legislature is weighing the votes of rural residents more heavily than urban ones, in violation of the landmark Supreme Court case Reynolds v. Sims.

The report "Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York" analyzes the number of prisoners incorrectly counted in each proposed Senate and Assembly district, and contrasts the practice with the constitutional requirements of one person-one vote.

While only 24% of New York prisoners are from the entire upstate region, over 91% of prisoners are incarcerated there. Despite a state constitutional requirement that prison does not change a residence, New York City loses 43,740 residents to the upstate prison towns from the counting method. Eighty percent of New York's prisoners are Black or Latino, but New York's prisons are predominately in white rural areas. By counting prisoners at the prison, the Black and Latino communities suffer reduced representation, and white rural strength grows as local residents get to, in effect, "speak for" the Black and Latino prisoners. The report questions whether rural legislators can in fact represent the interests of their new, and very numerous "constituents."

While the prison boom of the 1980s and 1990s has been a bi-partisan affair, one of its strongest proponents has been upstate Republican Senator Dale Volker head of the Committee on Code. On that committee, Volker is responsible for changes in the criminal law, and has been leading the fight to retain the Rockefeller Drug Laws. In Senator Volker's proposed new district, 8,951 of his "constituents" are barred from ever voting for him because they are incarcerated. By the time the prisoners complete their sentences, they will have left Volker's district and gone home to their true district.

The New York Legislature has funded prisons at a cost of over $2 billion a year, without ever answering the question of what they are getting for the citizens' tax dollars. The proposed districts resemble another historical legislative compromise to avoid a contentious issue: the 3/5ths clause of the Constitution that counted Southern slaves at 3/5ths of a white as a way to boost the population of the South.

The full report can be viewed at:

Stay Informed

Get the latest updates:

Share on 𝕏 Donate


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