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Another Reason To End Prison Gerrymandering: To Identify And Invest In Neighborhoods Most Affected By Incarceration

Another Reason To End Prison Gerrymandering: To Identify And Invest In Neighborhoods Most Affected By Incarceration


This week, Colorado’s Senate passed a bill to end prison gerrymandering, the practice of counting people where they are incarcerated rather than where they lived prior to incarceration. The governor is expected to sign the bill into law. Last month, New Jersey became the eighth state to end the practice.

For redistricting purposes, counting people where they are incarcerated skews political power. It swells the representation and voting power of (typically rural and heavily white) prison districts and diminishes representation and voting power for the districts from which people are disproportionately sent to prison. Furthermore, given that all but two states in the nation have felony disenfranchisement laws, people in prison suffer a dual injustice. Individuals are added to the population counts of the districts where they are incarcerated, rather than their home districts where their families might still live and where they are likely to return upon release, but they cannot vote and therefore have little power to shape representation in even the districts where they, technically, count.

In 2010, New York became one of the first states to end prison gerrymandering. Although state laws cannot change how the U.S. Census Bureau counts people, they can alter how people are counted for purposes of redistricting.

In a new report, the Prison Policy Initiative and VOCAL-NY demonstrate another benefit of laws to end prison gerrymandering: the data that became available about where incarcerated people are actually from. “By counting incarcerated people where they legally reside — at home, rather than in remote prison cells,” the authors write, “we are able to, for the first time, provide detailed state-wide data on the places imprisoned New Yorkers call home.”

There were two main findings. First, “that a relatively small number of areas in New York are disproportionately impacted by incarceration,” and second, that “high imprisonment rates correlate with other community problems related to poverty, employment, education, and health.” The authors are careful to note that correlation does not show causation but also make the point that “at a minimum, the correlations we find between imprisonment and other indicators of community well-being show that local imprisonment data are relevant to community discussions about issues beyond public safety and criminal justice.” They continue: “Our findings suggest the need for greater investment in programs and services that prevent criminal justice involvement or mitigate the harm of incarceration.”

So what does the data show about where incarcerated New Yorkers are from? Every county in New York State sends people to prison, but incarceration rates wildly vary. Albany County, home of the state capital, had the highest imprisonment rate, with 1,326 residents—or 434 per 100,000 residents—in state prison. (The report does not account for incarceration in local jails, federal prisons, or other facilities.)

A deeper examination shows that the ward-by-ward disparities are staggering. “Over half of everyone in state prison from Albany, for example, hail from just three of Albany’s 15 Common Council wards, which comprise most of the older, predominantly Black neighborhoods on the eastern side of the city along the Hudson River. Across the city, Ward 15 had only 3 residents in state prisons, whereas Ward 3 (north of the capitol building) had 206 residents in state prisons in 2010. People in Ward 3 are 67 times more likely to be imprisoned than the residents of District 15.”

The report then describes the correlations between high imprisonment rates and high rates of poverty, findings that, the groups write, “support previous research that finds strong links between both poverty and incarceration and incarceration and unemployment.” This newly available data allowed for research into what these links look like at the community level.

Two adjacent neighborhoods in northeast Buffalo offer “a stark example.” In one, the poverty rate is 10.4 percent and eight residents were in state prison in 2010. In the other, 43.2 percent of residents live in poverty, and despite having fewer residents overall, 59 people from the neighborhood were in prison in 2010. Their neighborhood imprisonment rates were 146 per 100,000 versus 1,449 per 100,000.

The most obvious use of this information would be to identify those districts where formerly reincarcerated people will return when they are released from prison and ensure that they have the resources and supports necessary for successful transitions. Another important use would be to change what cities and states spend money on. “In communities where the state or city has heavily invested in policing and incarceration (i.e. the high-incarceration neighborhoods we find in our analysis), our findings suggest that those resources would be better put toward reducing poverty and improving local health, education, and employment opportunities. Particularly as New York continues to reduce its reliance on incarceration—and therefore reduce the cost of incarceration to the state—any savings should be reinvested in the communities hit hardest by incarceration and criminalization.  To that end, these data can help with need-based decisions about resource allocation in these communities.”

Twenty-eight years ago, in an interview with the New York Times, Eddie Ellis, founder of the Center for Nu Leadership spoke of the “seven neighborhoods” study that he and other incarcerated men at Green Haven prison conducted on the high imprisonment rates in certain neighborhoods in New York City. That work foreshadowed later research on the millions spent to incarcerate people from certain New York neighborhoods, rather than to invest in those neighborhoods.