Record numbers of urban people of color are now in prisons in rural areas — where the census counts them as residents. Result? The prisoners’ ‘share’ of federal funds pegged to population counts will go to their keepers’ hometowns.
By Tracy Huling
Since April Fool’s Day, prison guards have been slipping census forms into the cells of the nation’s nearly two million prisoners. “Your answers are important,” reads the accompanying letter from the US Census Bureau director. “The amount of government money your neighborhood receives depends on your answers.”
Well, not exactly. Not in the case of prisoners.
The near- doubling of the prison population since the last census and a rural prison boom during the 1990s portends a substantial transfer of economic and political power from urban to rural America. That’s because, due to a little-known census provision, prison inmates will be counted in the populations of the towns and counties in which they are incarcerated and not in their home neighborhoods. The result? Inner-city communities, from which large numbers of prisoner bodies are snatched, will lose out. The prisoner “share” of the nearly $2 trillion in federal funds tied to population counts distributed nationwide over the next decade will go to the mostly rural hometowns of their keepers.
Moreover, even though prisoners in all but a few states can’t vote, their numbers can affect how the lines are drawn and how political power is distributed. When the census count is used to draw legislative districts, prisoners will be re-apportioned to the largely rural (and Republican) areas hosting their prisons.