Census 2020 and its Plan to Count Prison Inmates

Census 2020 is coming! That’s my version of “Winter is Coming!” I think it’s fair to assume that you are probably not as excited about it as me, but that’s okay. I think everything about the Census is pretty amazing. I mean, honestly, can you imagine trying to track down every single American, no matter where they are, no matter what their language, no matter how much they trust the government? And more important than that, to me, it is one of the core pieces of American democracy. Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution mandates that there be a census of all Americans every ten years. When you actually look at the Constitution, it isn’t explicit about much, but our founders made sure to include the Census because it’s that important. How do we know how many representatives belong in the House? The Census. How do we know how much funding should be allocated for libraries in your community? The Census. How do you know if that bridge will get money for its replacement? The Census.

(U.S. Census Bureau, 2010)

On to the reason I’m talking about the Census today. Last month, the Census Bureau announced that it will continue counting inmates in prisons at their “usual residence.” This means that they will be counted in the place where they live and sleep most of the time (read about it here). Therefore, when someone is incarcerated, they will be counted at the prison’s location, and not their home address.

Now, you ask, why does it matter? Well, it matters because it inflates the population size of communities with prisons, while leading to a decrease in populations in the communities that the inmates came from. For example, rural communities in downstate Illinois become overrepresented in the Census because there are more prisons in the area. A large proportion of inmates come from Chicago, though, and Chicago ends up losing those individuals in its Census count.

(Illinois Department of Corrections)

This form of counting means that prison districts end up with skewed district boundaries, where they are given more power in state politics. This can be quite beneficial for communities with prisons in them. In an interview, a former mayor of Sumner, a city in southern Illinois that includes the Lawrence Correctional Center, said “With the addition of the prison, the number of minorities in our town increased so much that we were put into a higher bracket that made us eligible for thousands and thousands of dollars. We received more money from our user tax and the population tax and our Motor Fuel Tax, which we were able to use to blacktop a road we had only been able to chip-and-seal before. And now we’re able to blacktop a new road every year.” Additionally, at the county level, these districts end up giving more power to fewer individuals. For example, if a county has 100 residents, but 30 are incarcerated, 70 individuals have the opportunity to control an election that would require 100 residents in another non-prison district.

According to Prison Policy Initiative, some cities, like Crest Hill, just to Lewis’ south, adjust their data based on how many incarcerated individuals there are in their community. They exclude the prison population of Stateville Correctional Center when redrawing their districts.

(Stateville Correctional Center)

There have been numerous arguments put forth for why individuals should be counted at their home address. These include the fact that the average jail sentence is nine months and that inmates are frequently moved between facilities across the state. Additionally, Prison Policy Initiative notes that other groups who keep ties in their community, like boarding school students, are counted within their home community. The Census Bureau received almost 78,000 comments regarding the application of “usual residence” to inmates. Despite the overwhelming amount of comments against this policy, the Census is sticking with it. We will see what the future has in store.

About Dr. Andrea Krieg

This blog was written when Dr. Krieg was serving as Assistant Professor of Justice, Law and Public Safety Studies at Lewis University in Illinois.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *