Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fighting over prison populations?

Well, yes, rural and urban communities want to claim prison populations for some purposes--specifically because of the federal monies and political representation that accompany U.S. Census population counts. National Public Radio ran a story on this topic yesterday. The report, by David Sommerstein, focused mostly on the New York context, though this issue plays out in other states, too. An excerpt from the NPR story follows:
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."

I've long been aware of this issue, and I've blogged about it earlier here. But one thing that struck me as worthy of note regarding yesterday's NPR report is that it was really balanced. Here's an excerpt reflecting "rural side of the story" as expressed by Chuck Kelly, a newspaperman in upstate Ogdensburg, who led a fight to attract two prisons to the city "at a time when other places were fighting to keep them away":

"The truth of the matter is New York City and the metropolitan areas didn't want [the prisoners]," 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 Sen. 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.

Sommerstein concludes the story with these neutral observations, reminding us of the similarities between two types of disadvantaged communities:

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.

1 comment:

Peter Wagner said...

I wish that NPR story hadn't gone out of its way to emphasize an urban vs. rural split in the name of drama, especially since I made it clear in my interview that where prisoners are counted has almost no impact on federal funding; and the redistricting reforms I’m advocating would have no direct impact on funding.

The story set this up as a zero-sum dispute, but that’s not quite accurate. For one, the New York State Constitution says that prisoners are not residents of the prison community.

And most rural counties in NY reject the prison counts for use in drawing internal county districts; and where people are aware of it in the remaining counties, they are pretty mad about the practice of padding some districts to the detriment of all others.

And finally, the losers at the state level are not urban communities. Every single district, urban and rural, which does not contain large prisons loses when the prison districts cheat at redistricting time.

Conflict stories make good news; and going off message to antagonize people who are different feels good. But the solution to rural and urban poverty is to find ways to work together.