Counting prisoners in Wisconsin

by Youssef Sawan & Kristian Knutsen, The Wisconsinite, June 22, 2004

In early June, Gov. Doyle announced that Wisconsin might be nearing the end of an eight-year period of exporting state prisoners to private prisons elsewhere in the country. In 2001, there were 4,253 inmates that were imprisoned outside of the state, at institutions in Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

By December 2003, there were 3,842 prisoners incarcerated out of the state, with that number dropping to 855 by the end of May. Much of the decrease was due to the recent opening of several new state prisons, as well as moves to hold inmates in county jails. These changes hearken back to one of the more contentious state issues in recent years; the state's exploding prison population.

Controversy also ensued several years ago over counting process of the U.S. Census Bureau. With various statistical methods in place, the possibility of undercounting or over counting immediately became a part of public debate.

Four years later, these problems remain unsettled business as the prison population in this country accounts for more people proportionally than it ever has in history.

The United States has had the highest incarceration rate in the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The general level of incarceration in this country hovered around 100 per 100,000 persons for fifty years until the 1980s and 90s, when it shot up to nearly 500 per by the turn of the century.

Moreover, there is a disproportionate number of people of color in prisons incarcerated. With about 2.5% of African Americans in prison, and twelve percent of black men in their twenties or early thirties incarcerated, these rates are almost eight times higher than among whites. This trend is pronounced in Wisconsin, with incarceration rates for blacks nearly twelve times higher, and at a higher rate of increase, due to the role of higher admission rates, more probation and parole revocations, and more drug offense sentences.

This skyrocketing rate of imprisonment is affecting the utility of census data, and slowly brewing political battles over they way political representation and government funding are allocated in this country.

map showing the percentage of the Black population in each Wisconsin county's census population that is incarcerated rather than resident in the county

Map by Rose Heyer

Peter Wagner is a fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy program funded by the Open Society Institute, that examines the "racial, gender, and economic disparities between the prison population and the larger society" in the United States. He is currently researching the demographic imbalances in the census that develop as a result of a burgeoning incarceration rate coupled with the building of larger and more prisons in rural areas of many states.

In April 2004, Wagner and a colleague, Rose Heyer, released "Too big to ignore: How counting people in prisons distorted Census 2000," a report that discussed the demographic results of counting an incarcerated person's prison address as their home in an era of high prison population.

As changes in the demographic patterns of the United States historically occurred, the U.S. Census Bureau modified its methodology for various reasons, though has yet to account for the rising prison population. According to Wagner, "Since the first census in 1790, the Census Bureau has continually updated its methodology. When evolving demographics and politics meant more college students studying far from home and more Americans living overseas, the Census policy changed in order to more accurately reflect how many Americans were living where."

The effects on legislative redistricting and demographic analysis have been especially apparent in the last twenty years due to growing imprisonment. The 1990 and 2000 Censuses reported large increases in black populations in various rural counties around the nation, much of which was due to incarceration rates above 50 percent for their black populations. In 173 counties around the nation, more than half of their black population was incarcerated in 2000.

This is growing political issue in some states, most notably New York, where upstate regions have swelled in population and accumulated disproportionate representational power in Albany due to influxes of inmates from New York City.

Here in Wisconsin, with incarceration have been growing at an especially high rate, we can see this situation. According to Wagner, "the census doesn't tell us where the prisoners came from, but we have six counties in Wisconsin that have more than half of their black population incarcerated. That makes it pretty easy to see that prisoners are coming from one part of Wisconsin and are incarcerated in other counties."

According to the census, Dodge County has a black population of 2,142 people. Without doing any research beyond the statistics delivered to us from the latest census, one might conclude that there has been a rise in communities of color within this predominantly rural county. However, after looking closer, we realize that 89 percent (1,196 persons) of the black population within Dodge County is incarcerated. The county is the site of two major state prisons, the Fox Lake Correctional Institution and Waupun Correctional Institution.

Jackson (Jackson Correctional Institution), Crawford (Prairie du Chien Correctional Facility), Sheboygan (Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution), Columbia (Columbia Correctional Institution), and Marquette (Federal Correctional Institution Oxford) counties all have well over half of their black populations incarcerated. This means that all of these people are accounted for in the areas they are compelled to "live" as a result of their sentence, rather than where their home is. In the case of African Americans in Wisconsin, these primarily are Milwaukee, Dane, Racine, Kenosha, Rock and Waukesha counties.

Other counties in Wisconsin with a high incarceration percentage (from 26-51%) among their black population include Grant (Supermax), Brown (Green Bay Correctional Institution), Winnebago (Oshkosh Correctional Institution), and Fond du Lac (Taycheedah Correctional Institution) counties.

According to Wagner, this "impacts how redistricting and political power is exercised in the state." These demographic distortions affect both urban and rural communities due to this confluence of increasing prison population and growing rural unemployment, as population-scaled federal and state funds are tipped towards rural prison communities and away from urban communities of color.

Prisoners from Wisconsin may have affected the 2000 Census in other states. Ninety-five percent of the black population of Swift County, Minnesota is incarcerated. This county is the home of the Prairie Correctional Facility, a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America, where exported prisoners from this state were counted in the 2000 Census. Wisconsin inmates were also counted at the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, Oklahoma. This prison, also run by Corrections Corp., is in Beckham County, where 69% of its black population is incarcerated.

In 1999, when it looked like Wisconsin would lose a congressional seat following the 2000 Census, thus there was a particularly strong effort in the state to count everybody. Rep. Mark Green (R-8) introduced a bill in Congress to allow states to count prisoners they exported across state lines for census persons. As Green testified to the U.S. Subcommittee on the Census, his support was due to "common-sense reasons" over the allocation of federal dollars, though concerns that Wisconsin would lose a congressional seat were certainly a factor as well. The bill did not progress very far in Congress due to the rapidly approaching census. Even if it had passed, however, it would not have had any effect on redistricting, and Wisconsin would have lost its congressional seat anyways.

With this decade nearing its halfway mark, the results of current policy are incredibly problematic, as the public can look at statistical data from the Census and conclude that communities of color are becoming more prominent in rural areas, rather than reflecting the nation's prison explosion. Due to this, Heyer and Wagner concluded in their report, "Counting incarcerated people at the prisons and not at their homes might have made sense decades ago. But now, the problem it creates for users of Census data is simply too big to ignore."

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