Census Turns Prisoners Into Commodities

Article by Brigette Sarabi

During the last twenty years, the U.S. has undertaken the largest prison build-up in the history of the world. This has created an unhealthy bond between two segments of society that have been notably left out of the celebrated “boom economy” – rural communities where the majority of new prisons have been built, and the poor, urban neighborhoods where the majority of prisoners come from.

Prisons are often seen as a recession-proof economic development strategy for rural communities that are barely hanging on in a globalized, downsized, and urbanized economy. Small towns and rural counties clamor for more prison beds in the hope of hanging onto a few hundred jobs and a chance to keep the endangered rural lifestyle alive. Meanwhile, impoverished urban communities see growing numbers of their young arrested and shipped off to prisons hundreds of miles from home. And so the misery of one community feeds upon the misery of another.

Now, thanks to the prison build-up and the 2000 Census, rural towns stand to hit the jackpot over the next decade. For the purposes of the census, prisoners are counted as residents of the town where they are imprisoned—not their home community. The census, of course, is used to allocate federal monies to communities throughout the U.S. Since it is conducted only every ten years, the figures gathered will determine federal monies for the next decade. And since the last census in 1990, the U.S. prison population has nearly doubled, with most of this increase being sent to rural prisons. And there’s the jackpot.

Just how much money are we talking about? The Census Bureau estimates that every person is worth roughly $300 in federal funds each year. So each prisoner is worth about $3,000 in federal funds over the next ten years to the prison town – whether they stay in prison or not. In a rural community like Oregon’s Malheur County, home to the Snake River Correctional Institution and it’s 2,800 inmates, the prison population will contribute over $8.4 million over the next decade. The same pattern can be seen in rural prison communities throughout the region.

In addition to federal aid based on population, rural prison towns stand to benefit from additional federal grant programs that take into account income levels and minority population figures. Prisoners, of course, have no real income, so this lowers the median income for the community where they are imprisoned – a factor in the community’s favor when seeking some federal grants. The growing prison population is also responsible for creating misleading minority population figures in largely white rural communities throughout our region. Approximately 34% of our region’s prisoners are people of color. Sitting in prison cells in rural white communities, these prisoners suddenly add to the “diversity” of the local population – another factor taken into consideration in some federal grant programs.

While rural prison towns benefit from the way the census counts prisoners. Many poor, urban neighborhoods stand to lose federal resources – resources which could have provided some of the much needed housing, employment, public health and education programs that are proven strategies for reducing crime, and for helping ex-offenders rebuild their lives when they return to the community.

Some segments of American society are reaping huge profits in the current economic boom, but poor rural and urban communities are left to fight over the crumbs. In the case of the prison build-up, the crumbs are human beings warehoused in growing numbers in prisons far from their homes.

What You Can Do

Write your local, state and U.S. Congressional representatives, and:

  1. Let them know about the Census Bureau’s policy of counting prisoners as residents of the community where they are imprisoned. Many elected officials are unaware of this policy. You can send along a copy of this article, or for additional articles on the census and prisoners, contact the Western Prison Project.
  2. Remind your elected representatives that this policy will have a decade-long impact and that average time served is shorter than that.
  3. Point out that one affect of this policy will be to decrease the amount of resources a community will have to help ex-offenders upon release (the vast majority of whom will return to their home community).
  4. Point out that this policy disproportionately impacts communities of color.
  5. Ask your elected representative what they intend to do about this policy. In the case of U.S. Congressional representatives, ask them to sponsor legislation to change this policy, so that prisoners are counted as resident of the communities they lived in before imprisonment. 
  6. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper about this issue! Please send a copy of letters published in the paper, or responses from your elected representatives, to the Western Prison Project.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Justice Matters.