Urban, Rural Areas Battle For Census Prison Populace

Unless something changes, prisoners will again be counted in this year's Census as residents of the places where they're locked up, not their hometowns. That means more political power for mostly rural and white prison host communities, and less for mostly urban and minority neighborhoods.

An urban-versus-rural battle is brewing over the census because prison inmates are counted as residents of the prisons where they are locked up. That inflates the population of the mostly white, rural towns that have the prisons.

Higher population means more political representation — and often more money for schools, road crews and other services. Activists say the counting unfairly shifts political and economic power away from the poor city neighborhoods most inmates came from.

'Phantom Constituents'

Ten years ago, the last time there was a census, 45,000 mostly black and Latino prisoners from New York City were locked up in the farm country of upstate New York. As inmates, they couldn't vote. But they were counted as residents of those rural political districts anyway. Chevelle Johnson was one of them.

"It's like a double slap in the face," Johnson says. "I can't vote, and then you take my body and put it in another community, so my community has no political power, so none of my interests get taken care of."

Peter Wagner of the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative calls them "phantom constituents." In New York, they pad mostly white, mostly Republican districts that have been losing population.

"Prisoners are not part of the community of interest that surrounds the prison," Wagner says.

They're more interested in drug, crime and housing laws than, say, farms.

"The system of one person, one vote entirely breaks down when we take people from one community of interest — and then credit them to a completely different community for districting purposes," Wagner says.

Wagner's organization wants to change the system nationwide. And it's starting with New York.

'Civil Rights Issue Of The Year'

Social justice groups and lawmakers gathered recently at New York City Hall to launch a campaign. The Rev. Al Sharpton brought the star power.

"I think that this is the voters' rights and civil rights issue of this year in the state of New York," Sharpton said. "Where you use people's bodies to count against their interests — there's nothing more blatant than that."

The fix is actually simple. Just count inmates in the communities where they come from when new political districts are drawn after the 2010 census. The census count itself doesn't have to change at all.

But in upstate New York, amid the rolling fields where the prisons sit, people feel threatened.

It's deadline time in The Ogdensburg Journal newsroom, where publisher Chuck Kelly has been a reporter and civic booster for 55 years.

"We have the second lowest per capita income in the whole 62 counties of the state of New York," Kelly says. "We're poverty. There's no other way to tell you that."

Urban, Rural Areas Similar

Ogdensburg is a rusty city on the St. Lawrence River, on the Canadian border. Its identity is deeply rooted in corrections. A century-old state psychiatric center occupies prime riverfront. Today, most of its stately red sandstone buildings sit empty, the result of mental hospital downsizing in the 1970s and '80s.

Kelly says 1,000 jobs were lost. He led a fight to replace them with two prisons, at a time when other places were fighting to keep jails away.

"The truth of the matter is New York City and the metropolitan areas didn't want them," Kelly says. "We needed the jobs, so we went after those jobs."

If Ogdensburg benefits from the census count, Kelly says, it's just compensation for the public security risk of housing criminals.

State Senator Darrel Aubertine represents a district with five prisons, including the two in Ogdensburg — about 3,500 inmates in all. He says they use water and sewer and other infrastructure.

"That in part is paid for by those inmates being counted in this region," Aubertine says.

He also says he'll vote against a bill to change the way prisoners are counted. Not surprisingly, other lawmakers with prisons in their districts will, too.

The reality is that Upstate New York would lose political clout.

State Sen. Eric Schneiderman of Manhattan is the bill's sponsor. He says similar efforts are getting started in other states such as Illinois, Texas and Maryland. He says it's fundamental, democratic justice.

"Poor communities where these prisoners come from need resources," Schneiderman says. "They need good schools. They need treatment programs. And very often the representatives of the districts who are maintained by the artificial inflation provided by the prison count, they vote against those things."

That makes Ogdensburg newspaperman Chuck Kelly howl.

"People up here have a right to eat, too," Kelly says. "They have a right to work."

In New York politics, downstate and upstate are painted as two different worlds. But the places prisoners come from and the places where they are bunked share a lot in common, such as poverty and unemployment.

They also share a hunger for the good schools and jobs that political power brings. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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