Census seen as captive to jail population loophole said to skew funds to rural areas

By Cindy Rodriguez, GLOBE STAFF
The Boston Globe
January 26, 2001, Friday

COXSACKIE, N.Y. - Razor wire swirls overhead, piercing the air above the Greene Correctional Facility - one of two state prisons that are goldmines to this rural town.

When the jails were unveiled in 1984, politicians and state corrections officials promised rejuvenation to this depressed farm town south of Albany.

The town got it, in ways no one had expected.

In an unintended consequence of the way the US Census counts people, the 2,800 inmates housed here account for nearly a third of the population, skewing the town's demographic picture in a way that benefits Coxsackie beyond imagination.

Prisoners boost the population, bringing in millions more in federal funds that are doled out on the basis of population size. And, because the Census tabulates the town's per capita income by averaging in the salaries of inmates - which range from zero to $3,000 a year per inmate - Coxsackie appears poorer, thus qualifying it for federal assistance programs.

Throughout rural America, home to a majority of the nation's prisons, these blurred statistics are resulting in a shift of federal money out of poor urban neighborhoods, into middle-class rural ones.

As the prison population continues to explode, reaching an all-time high of 2 million inmates this year - 65 percent of whom are black and Latino - it will result in a transfer of political power as well. Most prisoners come from urban, heavily Democratic areas, and they are being transferred to more conservative areas. As a result, they may help create more Republican-leaning states and congressional seats during redistricting.

"It's not just that the federal money follows these men out of their community and into the community in which they are temporarily incarcerated," said Lani Guinier, professor at Harvard Law School. "It's political power that follows these men out."

And because inmates can't vote in 48 states, including Massachusetts, some critics say it is reminiscent of the Constitutional three-fifths clause that had counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for reapportionment even though they weren't allowed to vote.

"In terms of the redistricting process, it results in a net loss for urban areas and a net gain in rural areas," said David Bositis, senior research associate for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

And now, politicians are beginning to realize the potential impact of the prisoner export. In Wisconsin, which ships 3,751 prisoners to other states, the loss to the state population count spurred Representative Mark Green to introduce a bill in 1999 that would have required the Census to count prisoners in the state from which they come.

Though the measure died on the House floor, Green's bill shined a spotlight on the issue. He said Wisconsin loses between $5 million and $8 million a year in federal grants because the Census counts the prisoners where they are incarcerated.

Kenneth Prewitt, the director of the Census Bureau, said that although he cannot defend the practice of counting inmates in penitentiary towns, the Census Bureau cannot change the rules for one group.

"If Congress wanted to change the rules for the prison population, we could do it," Prewitt said. "But we would never do it on our own."

Since the first national Census, in 1790, the US Census Bureau has counted inmates in the town where their prison is located, but it hasn't been an issue until recently, with the exponential growth of the prison industry.

In 1980, there were about a half-million people imprisoned in the United States. By 1990, the prison population more than doubled. In 2000, it rose to more than 2 million. In 2005, the number of inmates is expected to exceed 3 million.

Though the US Census Bureau does not tabulate the income of inmates into the median household income, it does include it in the per capita income of a town or city, said Kirby Posey, survey statistician for the US Census.

"We include inmates in the per capita income figure, and we release those statistics," Posey said. "We can't control how they are used."

That's music to the ears of Henry Rausch, the mayor of the Village of Coxsackie.

"I wasn't aware of it and I'm the mayor," Rausch said. "But from a selfish point of view, hey, whatever works. I'm not about to set out and change it if it helps us."

But for critics of the system, and the urban areas losing money to penitentiary towns, the formula is unfair.

"It's an ill-conceived way of proportioning federal dollars," said Eddie Ellis, president of the Community Justice Center, a criminal justice organization based in the Bronx. "The policy needs to be re thought so that money can go to where it's needed most."

The center conducted a ground-breaking study in 1980 that found that 75 percent of the state's inmates came from seven neighborhoods in New York City. Yet most are locked up in rural parts of the state. Ellis believes the percentage of inmates from poor neighborhoods has only increased since then, considering the long sentences given in crack cocaine cases to men who tend to be poor.

"We tried to identify what was taking place in these seven communities to account for why the numbers are so disproportionate. We found they were the poorest of the poor," Ellis said. "You take any social indicator - high school dropout rate, teen pregnancy, abandoned buildings, drug addiction, percentage of uncertified teachers - they were the lowest in every single indicator."

Chester Davidson, a 29-year-old inmate at the Greene Correctional Facility, represents one of the hundreds of men from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, imprisoned in rural New York.

For all the money that prisoners generate for Coxsackie and other towns, he figures the least the government should do is put some aside to help inmates released from prison.

"Some of the people getting out of here have no one to go home to," Davidson said. "If you have no where to go, you might end up going back to the street."