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Prisoners, Politics, Money and the Census

It's a standing joke that the Texas economy has been grounded in the 3 C's: cattle, crude, and convicts. But while Texas gets most of the publicity for its massive prison build-up, the human-warehousing trend is literally sweeping the countrysideand it is extremely profitable. Colorado, Kentucky, Georgia, and Virginia have joined Texas, New York, and California in using prisons as tools to bolster small-town economies.

In census year 2000, Minnesota prisoners were paid $1 apiece just for filling out the census form. Wardens from the state's eight prisons unanimously approved the measure in an effort to achieve the goal of 90 percent participation set by the Census Bureau. Tom Beaver, who was in charge of coordinating data collection in six states, said that the idea of paying prisoners was "unique to Minnesota."

Prison officials were quick to point out that the money does not come from taxpayers. Prisoners were paid from a fund set aside to buy recreation equipment. Revenue for the canteen is generated from prisoner payroll deductions. Jim Bruton, warden of Oak Park Heights prison said, "It seems to be a fair way to do it and not spend taxpayer money."

Why is so much attention being given to getting prisoners on the census? David Larson, ombudsman for corrections in Minnesota, insists that "[the] census is an important tool that will give corrections officials an opportunity to plan for more effective programming to meet the unique needs of groups in the prisons. The census will have a tremendous impact," he said. Larson points out that the prison census initiative could benefit the state's Indian population and people of color who might otherwise go under-represented. However, a closer look reveals that the preoccupation with counting prisoners has more to do with helping local communities than it does with helping prisoners. Studies have shown that because census counts add population numbers to the community where the prison is located, more and more incarcerated inner-city residents are being used to bolster the coffers of rural America. More prisoners means more jobs, more government money and more political power.

The extinction of the family farm and an absence of manufacturing jobs have left many rural towns bereft of any source of income. Consequently, prisons, which were once eschewed, have now become a boon for many small towns. Cheap land and willing residents make these isolated communities the perfect place for this country's growing number of human warehouses.


The list of benefits from census reports is virtually inexhaustible. Census numbers determine such things as highway funding, fire-stations, hospitals, medicaid, foster care, rehab-services, schools, and parks just to name a few. Most of these benefits are never seen or used by prisoners. Prisoners are a lucrative commodity in the census game. Towns all over the U.S. compete heavily to have prisons built nearby. Others simply expand their borders to annex existing prisons. A prison built in Thompson, Illinois more than quadrupled the town's 538 population and garnered over $180,000 from state programs.

According to Thompson's mayor Merrie Jo Enloe the prison is a godsend. "A lot of factories in our area are cutting back. People are losing their jobs, so we're hoping we'll be able to provide a place for them to work." Vienna and Shawnee Correctional Centers, in Johnson County, IL, holds 2,995 prisoners, 25 percent of the county population. The prison's population provides the county with about $1.5 million in government funds. This is nearly half of the county's $3.4 million annual budget.

In 1999, Arizona passed a law that expanded the ability of small communities to annex prisons. The law set off a heated competition between the towns of Gila and Buckeye for the right to annex a prison that was "sitting in the middle of nowhere." That's the description of the prison given by Joe Blanton, town manager of Buckeye, who eventually won the competition. The victory made Buckeye $285 apiece from their newly adopted residents _ a total of $1.3 million in government revenue.

State officials are quick to tout the benefits of building prisons in economically depressed communities. Government aid, indigent medical care, energy assistance, and revenue sharing are just some of the selling points. Couple that with the fact that the very people responsible for securing the added benefits won't be using any of them and towns are literally left with a something-for-nothing scenario. "It's one of the sidebar selling points of a prison, especially if the community is small," points out Nick Howell, Illinois DOC spokesman. "If it's a small community, you can really make out," he said.

Few towns have made out better than -Malone, New York. Malone is near the Adirondack Mountains, fifteen miles from the Canadian border. This once dying town now has new life courtesy of the New York penal system. "We've benefited from somebody else's mistakes," said Malone's Police Chief Gerald Moll. Employment is up, business has grown, and real estate values have risen. And when the census data rolls in, so will state and federal dollars.

Residents of Malone did not immediately embrace the idea of becoming a prison town. Molly McKee was president of the local Chamber of Commerce when the idea was introduced. "I thought: a prison. Ugh," she said. But by the time Franklin Correctional opened in 1986, the town and Molly thought it was a "great idea." In 1988 they opened Barehill Correctional and Upstate Correctional, a "supermax" prison, joined the community in 1999.

Malone now hosts about 5,000 prisoners. The town is now also sporting a new furniture assembly plant, a new textile firm, new pharmacies, discount stores, and fast-food restaurants. The local hospital has added a new dialysis unit and cancer treatment center. And of course no upwardly mobile town would be complete without its newly expanded 36-hole golf course.

With an annual payroll of $67 million, Malone has literally lifted itself from the dung-heap on the shoulders of prisoners. It's 7 percent unemployment is the lowest it's been since 1975.

Locating prisons in small towns is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to Calvin Beale, senior demographer for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, "there's a symbiotic relationship between rural communities and prisons. The counties want the employment and the state can let them bid. It really has become a widespread phenomenon in the last 20 years. "Roughly speaking, you'll have 10 jobs for every 30 or so prisoners. So if you have a prison come in with 1,400 prisoners your probably going to get 400 jobs out of that, and in a rural setting that's a lot of jobs. So they welcome these jobs and they bid for them."

Race & Power

Unfortunately, one community's gain is another's loss. The majority of prisons over the last ten years have been built in rural towns, predominantly white. However, since the 1980's, the war on drugs has filled prisons with low-income minorities, predominantly black. Consequently, impoverished urban areas are losing millions of dollars in government funds as well as crucial political influence.

In 1980, census counts for Pickaway County Ohio showed a black population of 1.3 percent, a total of less than 600. By 1990 the figures rose to 6.3 percent and 3,000 respectively. By April 2000, Pickaway County boasted a black population of 10.5 percent.

Pickaway County Commissioner Ruth Neff said, "I suppose we pick up additional grants because of having more blacks and Hispanics. We benefit by it, but there are extra costs too." By extra costs Neff refers to the occasional need to prosecute a prisoner who commits a crime in prison and the wear and tear on county roads by prison traffic. "It's probably a wash," she says.

Sixty-five percent of the nation's prison population is either black or Latino. Locating these unwilling residents in small, predominantly white, Republican towns, fundamentally shifts the balance of political power through the redistricting process. "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 Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier. "It's political power that follows these men out."

A 1980 report by the Community Justice Center showed that 75 percent of New York's prisoners come from just 7 New York City neighborhoods and 89 percent of New York state prisoners are locked up in isolated, rural areas of the state. The report points out that the current system shifts power and funds "from low-income, inner-city neighborhoods of color to white, rural upstate areas." This means that already under-addressed issues of poverty and substance abuse will be neglected even more in a population already targeted for failure.

Eddie Ellis, president of the Center says, the current census process is "an ill-conceived way of proportioning federal dollars. The policy needs to be rethought so that money can go to where it's needed most. We tried to identify what was taking place in these seven communities to account for why the numbers are so disproportionate. We formulated they were the poorest of the poor," said Ellis. "You take any social indicatorhigh school dropout rate, teen pregnancy, abandoned buildings, drug addiction, percentage of uncertified teachersthey were the lowest in every single indicator."

Other critics point out that the practice is reminiscent of the slavery clause in the original version of the U.S. Constitution. "Allowing white, rural districts to claim urban black prisoners as residents for purposes of representation resembles the old three-fifths clause (of the Constitution) that allowed the South extra representation for its slavesextra representation that perpetuated slavery until the Civil War," said Peter Wagner, a law student at Western New England College. The clause counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of political representation to vote. Since prisoners can't vote in 48 states, and have no political voice in the towns where they are counted, the parallel is strikingly similar.

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, chairman of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Price Waterhouse Coopers estimates that a community could lose as much as $3,391 over a ten year period for every uncounted individual.

In a case study, Wagner showed how four Republican senators had acquired nearly half of all New York's state prisons. [See last month's PLN cover story.] Without those prisons these same senators would have to reconfigure their districts in such a way that would diminish the Republican electorate in districts close to New York City. Counting prisoners in their districts of origin would not only diminish Republican power, it would possibly even increase Democratic representation in the House and Senate by two seats. Critics cite pork-barrel politics and racial bias as the reason why 38 New York prisons have been built in isolated rural towns since 1982. The four Republican senators deny these allegations. They say that these areas are where land is cheapest and it's just good business.

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, a math major at Duke University, observed a similar phenomenon in Florida. Most state prisoners originally resided in counties that voted for Al Gore in 2000 but are currently incarcerated in counties that voted for George W. Bush. Gulf County, a Republican stronghold with a population of 13,332 has only incarcerated 81 of its own residents. However, it is home to 2,574 prisoners. The county is part of a district that has 9 prisons and 8,443 prisoners.

Gulf County Representative Bev Kilmer admits, "we worked hard to get these facilities here in our district. I represent a very rural part of Florida and the economy is very slow here. A lot of businesses don't want to move their operations to this part of Florida."

Gulf County Commissioner Nathan Peters disagrees. Peters, who is black, is one of several commissioners who has ignored orders by the state Attorney General that counties include prisoners in its redistricting process. "They don't pay taxes, they don't have a right to vote, there is no reason to count them," he says. His position has led to some political in-fighting. Commissioner Billy E. Traylor, who is white, wanted prisoners counted since his district included a prison. Traylor said Peters is afraid that the inclusion would cause white voters to spill over into his district. Peters said Traylor just wanted the benefits of a non-voting constituency.

The policy has met resistance in other states as well. Some counties in Colorado require commissioners to live in the districts they represent. Including prisoners would literally create "prison" districts without representation. However, the absurdity of the situation is best illustrated in Louisiana where counting prisoners would have left Iberville Parish with only two eligible voters, both Asian.

Even in Malone, NY, with all its prosperity, there are reservations. Candid conversations with some residents reveal an underlying concern that prisoner's families (virtually all minorities) might eventually decide to settle in town instead of just coming to visit. According to three middle aged residents the only black that ever lived in Malone was a deaf-mute nicknamed Snowball. "When you have a small community and suddenly have that infiltration from outside, issues of diversity come," said Police Chief Moll. Clearly, at least a few of the Malone residents are concerned that the situation might "Snowball."

Inflated Populations

Not surprisingly, however, the bottom line is always money. Albany, New York is a perfect example of how benefits are usurped from their intended targets by inflating population figures. When Coxsackie prison increased the population of the town by over 30 percent the census calculated the wages of prisoners into the average income for Albany residents. Prisoners make between zero and $3,000 per year. The tabulation lowered Albany's average income enough to qualify the town for federal assistance. So on top of jobs, businesses and other fringe benefits the town receives from the prison, they also receive federal money based on blurred statistics-money that would otherwise go to poor urban neighborhoods.

Three Oklahoma towns, Cushing, Hinton, and Watonga, have bolstered their populations over 80 percent by adding prisons. Prisons literally put Texas towns like Gatesville, Huntsville, Beeville, and Palestine on the map. A recent study has shown how the prison craze is sweeping across small-town U.S.A.

Below is a list of prison towns and the portion of their populations made up of prisoners:

Ø Florence, Arizona: 69.47%

Ø Gatesville, Texas: 58.37%

Ø Avenal, California: 44.67%

Ø Ionia, Michigan 41.67%

Ø Tehachapi, California: 40.7%

Ø Union Township, Ohio: 38.77%

Ø Susanville, California: 35.27%

Ø Midgeville, Georgia 34.67%

Ø Malone, New York: 34.57%

Ø Corcoran, California: 34.7%

This list only includes towns with a population above 10,000 residents. Many towns like Beeville, Texas and Florence, Colorado did not even make the study. Almost 60 percent of the population of Beevile is behind bars. Florence has a regular population of 5,224 and a prison population of 11,830, which means that almost 70 percent of its population are prisoners.

Rep. Lamar Lemmons (D-Detroit), a proponent of census reform, says "Prison is not a residence, it is a condition." He insists that allocating funds to a prisoner's city of origin would be fairer than the current system. The five prisons built in Ionia, MI raised the town's recreation budget from $10,000 in 1989 to $589,000 by census 2000.

States like Wisconsin, Wyoming, Hawaii, and Connecticut are also clamoring for census reform. Hawaii houses its excess prisoners in New Mexico and Wyoming sends many of its prisoners to Texas. Projected losses for Connecticut is $2.8 million over the next ten years because it will not be allowed to count the 477 prisoners it houses in Virginia. Additionally, Connecticut pays Virginia $11 million annually to house those prisoners. "To me, it's very frustrating," said Connecticut State Secretary Susan Bysiewicz. "Our state is paying thousands of dollars to house prisoners out of state and we cannot count them in our own state ... Federal funds are critical to Connecticut," she says.

So far Congress does not seem ready to change its policy and no help is coming from the Census Bureau. Kirby Posey, a survey statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau said "We include inmates in the per capita income figure, and we release those statistics. We can't control how they are used." Kenneth Prewitt, Director of the Census Bureau adds, "If Congress wanted to change the rules for the prison population, we could do it. But we would never do it on our own."

Feeding Frenzy

Current methods of gathering census data have created something of a feeding frenzy between States. The Census Bureau's current definition of residence is so flexible that States literally count anyone who happens to be around at the time. Sailors docked in port, circus performers in town for a week, and even R.V. travelers are all fair game for census counters. Permanent addresses and voting residence are not an issue. Consequently, prisoners have become an extremely valuable commodity.

She also points out that when "these prisoners finish paying their debt to society, most likely they will be back in our State and they will be consumers of all the services these Federal funds will be used for."

Losing its prisoner count has political consequences as well. Diminished population counts based on the 2000 census place Connecticut in danger of losing a Congressional seat, a fate which they narrowly escaped in 1990. Connecticut officials are so concerned about their census figures that census counters brought forms to State prisons in 37 different languages.

Mark Green, U.S. Rep. (R-Wisconsin) voices similar concerns about Wisconsin prisoners. Wisconsin houses over 4,000 prisoners in other States. Green estimates that the State currently loses between $5 million and $8 million a year in Federal funding. This does not take into account what the State pays to keep them elsewhere. He proposed legislation to Congress that would count prisoners housed out of state as Wisconsin residents. "They have to come back to Wisconsin to finish their sentences; we're paying the cost for them; we're liable for them; and they began in Wisconsin. I think there is a very serious logical argument on our side here." Green is also worried that not being allowed to count out of state prisoners could also cost Wisconsin a congressional seat.

Conversely, the small town of Sayre, Oklahoma has been revitalized by its new CCA built prison. The prison pays $411,000 in property taxes, $2.5 million in goods and services, and $7 million in wages annually. All 1,440 prisoners are from Wisconsin.

At the time of the 2000 census, Florence, Arizona had just over 16,000 residents, almost 12,000 of which were prisoners. State and Federal funding virtually doubled the revenue generated by the town's local taxes. Florence has even adopted the image of a guard tower and prison wall as its town seal. One can almost see a teardrop tattooed beneath the eye of prison employees for every five years of service.

Voices of Reason

Some have questioned the ethics of current sentencing laws. Certain lawmakers are intent on maintaining antiquated and discriminatory statutes for their small-town constituents who literally survive on their prison populations. In New York, Rockerfeller drug laws are nothing short of draconian. Based on statutes enacted in the 1970's, first-time drug offenders can be given up to 15-year sentences. Reform advocates have pushed for change but in spite of much negative publicity the legislature refuses to address the issue.

The Correction Association of New York co-sponsored a report in 2000 that addressed the intimate relationship between New York's fiscal policies and prison placement within the state. Robert Gangi, executive director of the Association said that legal reforms have been thwarted by "the vested interests that Republican state senators have in keeping the spigot flowing and keeping prisoners flowing into the system." State Senator Ronald B. Stafford (R) is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Twelve prisons are located in his district alone. Not surprisingly, Stafford refused to comment on the issue.

Peter Wagner, New England College researcher and founder of the Prison Policy Initiative, addressed the New York Legislature and pointed out that New York presently incarcerates three times more people now than it did in 1980, 66 percent of those prisoners come from New York City, and 100 percent of the prisons built since 1982 have been built upstate. Wagner noted that Senator Volker had managed to bolster his district population with prisons by 3.3 percent, Senator Stafford by 4.4 percent, and Assemblyman Orloff by 7.5 percent.

Senator Volker joked easily about the situation. They "would never vote for me," he told reporters of the 11,000 prisoners in his district. He claimed that in his home county of Wyoming, NY, which had more cows than people, he'd sooner take his chances with the cows. "They would be more likely to vote for me," he said.

The census form calls prisons, jail facilities, and detention centers "special places." Prisoners also are aware of their special status and the special interest that surrounds them.

In building C-4 of Lancaster prison in Los Angeles County CA, nearly half of the prisoners refused to fill out the census form. John Sebok, a guard at the Lancaster "special place" said that many prisoners who refused to participate were coerced by those around them. "They don't want to look different," he said. But some of the prisoners indicated that the source of their resistance ran deeper than Sebok suggested.

A soft-spoken Eddie Walker respectfully declined the opportunity to participate in the census claiming that much of the information "can be collected from our files." Walker maintains he is innocent of attempted murder charges and that he was framed by Los Angeles police. "It's hard to want to help when they're not helping me," he said. Another prisoner put it more bluntly; "I don't give a damn about the government," he said. Daemon Edwards said, "It [revenue from census data] should go to families and children. Not building new prisons."(sic)

Jana Schroeder, an Ohio prison activist, shares Edwards' sentiment when addressing prison build-up in her own state. "They [prison towns] might be able to put more money into their local programs, but it wouldn't in any way benefit the inmate populations. If you're going to get money for bodies, you should spend it on the bodies that are there."

But few are feeling guilty about their new found source of riches. Henry Raush, mayor of Coxsackie said, "from a selfish point of view, hey, whatever works. I'm not about to set out and change it if it helps us." Statistics indicate that by 2005 the prison population will exceed 2.3 million. With money like that at stake, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Los Angeles County will get it's prisoners counted, with or without their cooperation.

Sources: Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Corrections Professional, Dayton Daily News, Harper's Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Michigan Citizen, New York Times, Newhouse News Service, Prison Policy Initiative, The Record (NJ), Salt Lake Tribune, Star Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post

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