One of the most important criminal legal system disparities in Washington has long been difficult to decipher: Which communities throughout the state do incarcerated people come from? Anyone who lives in or works within heavily policed and incarcerated communities intuitively knows that certain neighborhoods disproportionately experience incarceration. But data have never been available to quantify how many people from each community are imprisoned with any real precision.1
But now, thanks to redistricting reform that ensures incarcerated people are counted correctly in the legislative districts they come from, we can understand the geography of incarceration in Washington. Washington is one of over a dozen states that have ended prison gerrymandering, and now count incarcerated people where they legally reside — at their home address — rather than in remote prison cells. This type of reform, as we often discuss, is crucial for ending the siphoning of political power from disproportionately Black and Latino communities, to pad out the mostly rural, predominantly white regions where prisons are located. And when reforms like Washington’s are implemented, they bring along a convenient side effect: In order to correctly represent each community’s population counts, states must collect detailed state-wide data on where imprisoned people call home, which is otherwise impossible to access.
Using this redistricting data, we found that in Washington, incarcerated people come from all over the state, and unsurprisingly, the largest number of imprisoned people are from the state’s most populous cities of Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma. Surprisingly, a handful of less populous and more rural counties — like Grays Harbor, Cowlitz, Lewis, and Yakima counties — have the highest imprisonment rates per 100,000 residents,4 suggesting that people all over Washington are affected by the state’s reliance on mass incarceration.
In addition to helping policy makers and advocates effectively bring reentry and diversion resources to these communities, this data has far-reaching implications. Around the country, high imprisonment rates are correlated with other community problems related to poverty, employment, education, and health. Researchers, scholars, advocates, and politicians can use the data in this report to advocate for bringing more resources to their communities.
More than 15,000 Washington residents are locked up in state prisons, leaving the state with an imprisonment rate of 197 per 100,000 Washington residents.5 While no part of Washington is immune to the consequences of the state’s reliance on mass incarceration, some communities are disproportionately impacted by imprisonment.
Most broadly, we find that incarcerated people in Washington come from every corner of the state: every single one of the state’s 39 counties is missing a portion of its population to prisons.
The state’s most populous county with over 2.2 million residents — King County (Seattle) — has the most residents imprisoned (3,072) of all Washington counties, but has one of the lowest county imprisonment rates in the state: 135 imprisoned people per 100,000 county residents. On the other hand, the western county of Grays Harbor has the highest imprisonment rate in the state (470 per 100,000) and has 349 residents in state prisons. Although Grays Harbor is missing fewer people to prison, the county — along with a handful of other midsize and smaller counties like Cowlitz, Lewis, Yakima, and Asotin — is missing a relatively large proportion of their population to state prisons. The high imprisonment rates in these less populous counties means that the idea that incarceration is a problem uniquely experienced in cities is a myth.
Nationally, we know that Native American and American Indian people are overrepresented in state prison systems. In Washington, Native people were 6% of the state prison population in 2020, but only 2% of the statewide population. These numbers only tell a part of the story, though.
By diving deeper into this dataset we get a more full picture of the devastating impact of mass incarceration on reservation communities.6 (For technical reasons, it can be challenging to reallocate people to rural and reservation addresses, so the data here likely understates the import of incarceration on the rural and reservation land.) People living in the Skokomish Reservation and Squaxin Island Reservation experience imprisonment rates of over 1,000 per 100,000 residents, which is almost double the rate of imprisonment in Tacoma and more than six times the imprisonment rate in Seattle.
Although the number of residents of reservations is small, the proportion of the population that is imprisoned is relatively high compared to other geographic areas of the state. Across reservation and trust land in Washington as a whole, the imprisonment rate is 216 per 100,000, which is still higher than the imprisonment rate of most cities in the state, and higher than the state average.
Racial and ethnic disparities permeate all levels of the criminal legal system, and we can see evidence that these disparities in policing contribute to the overrepresentation of Native people in Washington prisons. For example, in the small city of Union Gap (total population of less than 7,000 people), the population is 5.5% Native American, but Native Americans make up 10% of arrests by the Union Gap Police Department.
Across the state, the largest cities are incarcerating the most people: Tacoma has 1,351 residents in state prison, Seattle has 1,215, and Spokane has 941. The city of Tacoma — which has an imprisonment rate seven times higher than the state average and the highest imprisonment rate of Washington’s large cities (612 per 100,000) — is home to less than 3% of the state’s residents, but a disproportionate 9% of residents in state prisons. Across the country, the criminal legal system disproportionately and unfairly targets the communities of color — particularly Black communities. This appears to be true in Tacoma, where the city population is 11% Black (compared to the statewide population that is less than 5% Black) but Black people make up 34% of arrests by Tacoma police and are 4 times more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses than white people.
Not all imprisonment is concentrated in the state’s largest cities, however. A handful of small cities — Aberdeen and Kelso — have imprisonment rates higher than Tacoma. 170 residents of 17,000 total residents of Aberdeen city (on the western coastline) are imprisoned, resulting in an imprisonment rate of 989 per 100,000. In Kelso — about 40 miles north of Vancouver — 119 of the 12,720 residents are imprisoned, resulting in an imprisonment rate of 927 per 100,000.
Within cities and counties, imprisonment tends to be concentrated in a relatively small number of geographic areas and neighborhoods. For example, the city of Spokane has an imprisonment rate of 409 per 100,000 residents, but two of the 29 neighborhoods are responsible for over 30% of the city’s prison population. West Central is home to less than 4% of the city’s residents and home to more than 17% of the city’s imprisoned population. Similarly, the neighborhood of Logan is home to less than 5% of Spokane’s residents and more than 13% of the city’s imprisoned population. Compared to other nearby neighborhoods with some of the lowest imprisonment rates in the city — like Canon Hill with an imprisonment rate of 40 per 100,000 and Balboa-South Indian Trail with a rate of 34 per 100,000 — West Central and Logan have rates more than 40 times higher. While the residence data available for this analysis does not explain why these neighborhoods are facing the highest rates, we know that West Central is often considered one of the poorest areas of Spokane with more than 30% of residents living in poverty in some parts of the neighborhood and that poor people, families, and communities are disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system.
While all communities are missing some of their members to prisons, in places where large numbers of adults — parents, workers, voters — are locked up, incarceration has a broader community impact. The large number of adults drained from a relatively small number of geographical areas seriously impacts the health and stability of the families and communities left behind.7
Across the country, researchers have connected high local incarceration rates with a host of negative outcomes for the people who live there. In our own analysis of where incarcerated people in Maryland are from, we found that Baltimore communities with high rates of incarceration were more likely to have high unemployment rates, long average commute times, low household income, a high percentage of residents with less than a high school diploma or GED, decreased life expectancy, high rates of vacant or abandoned properties, and higher rates of children with elevated blood-lead levels, compared to neighborhoods less impacted by incarceration.
Across the country, research reveals the numerous correlations8 between imprisonment and other consequences of underinvestment in community wellbeing:
We already have this wealth of data showing that incarceration rates correlate with a variety of barriers and negative outcomes. The data in this report build on this work by helping identify which specific neighborhoods throughout Washington are systematically disadvantaged and left behind. Washington residents can use the data in this report to examine granular local-level and state-wide correlations and choose to allocate needed resources to places hardest hit by incarceration.
These 11 data tables provided here have great potential for community advocacy and future research.
First and most obviously, these data can be used to determine the best locations for community-based programs that help prevent involvement with the criminal legal system, such as offices of neighborhood safety and mental health response teams that work independently from police departments. The data can also help guide reentry services (which are typically provided by nonprofit community organizations) to areas of Washington that need them most.
But even beyond the obvious need for reentry services and other programs to prevent criminal legal system involvement, our findings also point to geographic areas that deserve greater investment in programs and services that indirectly prevent criminal legal involvement or mitigate the harm of incarceration. After all, decades of research show that imprisonment leads to cascading collateral consequences, both for individuals and their loved ones. When large numbers of people disappear from a community, their absences are felt in countless ways. They leave behind loved ones, including children, who experience trauma, emotional distress, and financial strain. Simultaneously, the large numbers of people returning to these communities (since the vast majority of incarcerated people do return home) face a host of reentry challenges and collateral consequences of incarceration, including difficulty finding employment and a lack of housing. People impacted by the criminal legal system tend to have extremely diminished wealth accumulation. And those returning from prison and jail may carry back to their communities PTSD and other mental health issues from the trauma they’ve experienced and witnessed behind bars. Lastly, investing in core community resources to mitigate structural issues like poverty, such as housing and healthcare, will reduce vulnerabilities for criminal legal system contact.
And since we know place of origin correlates with so many other metrics of wellbeing, we can and should target these communities for support and resources beyond what we typically think of as interventions to prevent criminal legal system contact. In communities where the state or city has heavily invested in policing and incarceration (i.e. the high-incarceration neighborhoods we find in our analysis), our findings suggest that those resources would be better put toward reducing poverty and improving local health, education, and employment opportunities.
For example, we know that large numbers of children in high incarceration areas may be growing up with the trauma and lost resources that come along with having an incarcerated parent, and that these children are also more likely to experience incarceration. The information in this report can help with planning and targeting supports, resources, and programming designed to not only respond to the harms caused by incarceration, but disrupt the cycle of familial incarceration.
We invite community leaders, service providers, policymakers, and researchers to use this data to make further connections between mass incarceration and various outcomes, to better understand the impact of incarceration on their communities.
This report capitalizes on the unique opportunity presented by Washington’s ending of prison gerrymandering, which allows us to determine accurately for the first time where people incarcerated in state prisons come from. In this report’s linked datasets, we aggregate these data by a number of useful state-wide geographies such as counties, state legislative districts, congressional districts, and for some city-wide geographies such as neighborhoods or city council districts in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, and Vancouver.
This section of the report discusses how we processed the data, some important context and limitations on that data, and some additional context about the geographies we have chosen to include in this report and appendices. The goal of this report is not to have the final word on the geographic concentration of incarceration, but to empower researchers and advocates — both inside and outside of the field of criminal justice research — to use our dataset for their own purposes. For example, if you are an expert on a particular kind of social disadvantage and have some data organized by county, zip code, elementary school district, or other breakdown and want to add imprisonment data to your dataset, we probably have exactly what you need in a prepared appendix described below.
This report and its data are one in a series of similar reports we are releasing in the spring and summer of 2022, focusing on 13 states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington — which counted incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes, and therefore also made this analysis possible. This report can also be seen as a template for other states because while not all states have ended prison gerrymandering, most state departments of corrections already have near-complete home residence records in an electronic format. States that have not yet ended prison gerrymandering should be encouraged to continue improving their data collection, and to share the data (under appropriate privacy protections) so that similar analyses could be performed.
Washington’s law ending prison gerrymandering required the Washington State Department of Corrections to share the home addresses of people in state prisons on Census Day 2020 with redistricting officials, so that these officials could remove imprisoned people from the redistricting populations reported by the Census for the facilities’ locations and properly credit people to their home communities. The adjusted data was then made available for state and local officials to use to draw new legislative boundaries. As a side effect, this groundbreaking dataset allows researchers to talk in detail for the first time about where incarcerated people came from.
Creating the tables in this report required several steps which were expertly performed by Peter Horton at Redistricting Data Hub:
Our analysis in this report documents the home addresses of 15,177 people in state prisons, which is a little less than the state prison population of almost 16,600.14 These numbers are different for a variety of reasons, including policy choices made when the legislation ending prison gerrymandering was created and others are just the practical outcome of valiant state efforts to improve federal census data, or the process of repurposing that dataset for this entirely different project.
From the perspective of improving democracy in Washington, the state’s reallocation efforts were successful, reducing both the unearned enhancement of political representation in prison-hosting areas and reducing the dilution of representation in the highest-incarceration districts. From the perspective of using that data to discuss the concentration of incarceration, some readers may want to be aware of some the reasons why our report discusses the home addresses of 15,177 people when they may be aware that the state prison system had slightly more people on Census day:
Similarly, this report doesn’t reflect the other groups of people incarcerated from particular communities who are not reflected in these data,15 because they were:
We’ve organized the data in this report around several popular geographies, as defined by the federal government, by the state, or by individual cities, with the idea that the reader can link our data to the wealth of existing social indicator data already available from other sources.
Unfortunately, the reader may desire data for a specific geography that we have not made available — for example, their own neighborhood, as they conceive of its boundaries. Often, there was not a readily accessible and official map that we could use that defined that boundary; so where the reader has this need, we urge the reader to look for other geographies in our datasets that can be easily adapted to their needs, either one that is similar enough to their preferred geography or by aggregating several smaller geographies together to match your preferred geography.
We also want to caution subsequent users of this data that some geographies change frequently and others change rarely, so they should note the vintage of the maps we used to produce each table. For example, county boundaries change very rarely, and when they do, it is often in extremely small ways. On the other hand, legislative districts may change frequently and significantly, so depending on your goals some specific tables may be more or less applicable for your future use.
Finally, readers should note that occasionally the incarcerated numbers in our tables for some geographies will not sum precisely to the total 15,177 home addresses used in this report. That discrepancy arises because of how census blocks — the basic building block of legislative districts — nest or fail to nest within geographies drawn by agencies other than the Census Bureau.
Criminal legal system data is often poorly tracked, meaning researchers must cobble together information from different sources. But by using complete data from state redistricting committees, this report (and a series of other state reports that the Prison Policy Initiative developed with state partners) are uniquely comprehensive and up-to-date. The series includes two previous reports on Maryland (published in 2015, in collaboration with the Justice Policy Institute) and New York (published in 2020, in collaboration with VOCAL-NY), and our newest reports on New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, California, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.
While these reports are the first to use redistricting data to provide detailed, local-level data on where incarcerated people come from statewide, other organizations have previously published reports that focused on individual cities or that provided data across fewer types of geographic areas. For example, the Justice Mapping Center had a project that showed residence data for people admitted to or released from state prisons in a given year for almost two dozen states. That project made those states’ annual admission and release data available at the zip code and census tract levels, most recently mapping 2008-2010 data. Separately, it also mapped the residences of people admitted to state prisons from New York City down to the block level using 2009 data.
Another resource (particularly helpful for states that are not included in our series of reports) is Vera Institute for Justice’s Incarceration Trends project, which maps prison incarceration rates for 40 states at the county level, based on county of commitment (meaning where individuals were convicted and committed to serve a sentence, which is often but not necessarily where they lived). ↩
American Indian and Alaska Native areas (AIANAs) are geographies defined by the Census Bureau and across the country, these areas include reservations and trust lands, tribal jurisdiction statistical areas, Alaska Native Regional Corporations, Alaska Native village statistical areas, and tribal designated statistical areas. In Washington, there are American Indian reservations and trust lands. ↩
Unfortunately, neighborhood-level analyses are not possible for all large cities in the state. For example, Seattle does not have publicly available neighborhood geographic files for us to use to analyze neighborhood-level incarceration in the city. However, for a local-level analysis of Seattle’s imprisonment trends, imprisonment rates by census tract and city council district are available in the appendix. ↩
Imprisonment rates per 100,000 are a useful tool for comparison between different geographic regions with varying population sizes. For example, using a rate per 100,000 allows us to compare the frequency of imprisonment between the most populous Washington counties like King County — with over 2.2 million residents — to the smaller, less populated counties, like any one of the 27 Washington counties with less than 100,000 residents. ↩
As explained in the methodology, this report’s imprisonment rate is based on the number of people in state prisons who were reallocated to individual communities as part of the state’s law ending prison gerrymandering. This number is necessary for making apples-to-apples comparisons of imprisonment between specific communities and the state as a whole. For the purposes of comparing incarceration in Washington with that of other states, other more common metrics would be more useful. For these other uses, we would recommend using other numbers for the statewide incarceration rate, likely either the 203 per 100,000 published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Prisoners in 2020 for the number of people in state prison per 100,000 residents, or our more holistic number of 455 per 100,000 residents used in States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021 that includes people in state prisons, federal prisons, local jails, youth confinement, and all other forms of incarceration. ↩
Many Native people do not live on reservation land, and, as discussed throughout the report, the residence data used here is only for people in state prisons. Undoubtedly, many Native people are imprisoned in jails and federal prisons as well, so the imprisonment rates discussed here are likely a significant undercount of the true impact of the criminal legal system on reservation land in Washington. ↩
These impacts of incarceration on families and communities include higher rates of disease and infant mortality, housing instability, and financial burdens related to having an incarcerated loved one. For more detailed information on how incarceration impacts families and communities, see On life support: Public health in the age of mass incarceration from the Vera Institute of Justice. ↩
These various correlative findings are once again in line with previous research on health disparities across communities, which have been linked to neighborhood factors such as income inequality, exposure to violence, and environmental hazards that disproportionately affect communities of color. Public health experts consider community-level factors such as these — including incarceration — “social determinants of health.” To counteract these problems, they suggest taking a broad approach, addressing the “upstream” economic and social disparities through policy reforms, as well as by increasing access to services and supports, such as improving access to clinical health care. ↩
Asthma prevalence has been used as a tool to measure population health in both sociological and public health research because it is easily correlated with environmental factors, like air quality and triggers (i.e. second hand smoke, mold, dust, cockroaches, dust mites), access to appropriate healthcare, and healthcare literacy. See the American Lung Association’s Public Policy Position for a literature review of the relevant public health research. ↩
Again, this finding is consistent with previous research on the relationship between education and imprisonment rates. We previously reported that the high school educations of over half of all formerly incarcerated people were cut short. This is in line with earlier studies showing that people in prison have markedly lower educational attainment, literacy, and numeracy than the general public, and are more likely to have learning disabilities. We also know there are relationships between parental incarceration and educational performance. ↩
For additional information about redistricting on tribal land in Washington, see this 2022 report from the Center for Public Integrity. ↩
This list of groups of people who could not be counted at home is yet another set of reasons why the U.S. Census Bureau is the ideal agency to end prison gerrymandering: they are the only party with the ability to provide a complete solution and they can do this work far more efficiently than the states can. ↩
We would like to thank the Redistricting Data Hub, particularly Peter Horton, for providing valuable technical expertise and the key data in the appendix tables. Redistricting Data Hub’s assistance processing the redistricting data and connecting us with other demographic data enabled us to produce and distribute these reports faster and more affordably than would otherwise have been possible.
More Equitable Democracy would also like to thank the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for their generous support of this work, as well as Jeannie Darneille, Yasmin Trudeau, Eric Gonzalez, Patricia Whitefoot, Heather Villanueva, and Michael Martin for their leadership in helping end prison gerrymandering in Washington State.
The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative produces cutting-edge research that exposes the broader harm of mass criminalization and sparks advocacy campaigns that create a more just society. In 2002, the organization launched the national movement against prison gerrymandering with the publication of Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York. This report demonstrated how using Census Bureau counts of incarcerated people as residents of the prison location dilutes the votes of state residents who do not live next to prisons, in violation of the state constitutional definition of residence. Since then, Washington is one of over a dozen states that have used Prison Policy Initiative’s research to end prison gerrymandering.
More Equitable Democracy is a racial justice organization working to advance racial equity through electoral reform. They support communities of color to advocate for systems change in order to elect more reflective and accountable governments at all levels. More Equitable Democracy partners with community organizations to reform electoral systems, build their organizational capacity, and share their stories.