Prisons are a booming
business. Since the 1980's when
the U.S. incarcerated around 300,000 people, the prison population has exploded
to more than 2.3 million. The history
of racial control in the U.S. via means of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and
poll and literacy tests has continued in the form of felony convictions that
led to our era of mass incarceration. It comes as no surprise that people of color are disproportionately
targeted and comprise a large percentage of prison populations.
In upstate New York, whose
population is in a consistent downward spiral, upstate politicians turned to prisons
as a lifeline for a mostly rural, white population. New York Assembly members Kenneth Blankenbush
(Republican, AD 122) and Addie Russell
(Democrat, AD 118) are well aware of this. Five prisons are located in the two upstate counties they
represent. The population of these two counties is over 95% white, however the
prison population is over 87% people of color.
Are Blankenbush and Russell really
okay padding their districts with incarcerated people of color bussed in from
New York City and other urban areas? In an interview in the Watertown
Daily Times, Blankenbush argued, "They're residing in the prisons. That's where they're using our water,
our sewer, our electric." Russell
added, "Prisons are a cost to the local community. Prisoners go back and forth on our roads, they use our local
health-care system, they use the services in the area."
Their rhetoric of "us vs. them"
could lead a reader to believe that the prisons are a burden to the region,
rather than what sustains it. The reality is that the law passed last August
doesn't affect the core census data, and thus doesn't alter federal or state
funding based on the census. What
the Assembly members' comments mask are that their own political careers are
dependent upon the practice of mass incarceration of people of color in their
This past August, the New York
state legislature, where Blankenbush and Russell serve, passed a law that
brought New York into compliance not only with federal law, but also with its
own state Constitution. The bill,
broadly supported by more than 70 statewide policy, civil rights, good government
and community organizations, required that for purposes of determining
population for drawing district lines, persons incarcerated in New York prisons
be counted as residents of their home communities, not where they have been
transported to for confinement.
Counting incarcerated persons in the place they are detained is a
practice known as prison-based gerrymandering.
When the district lines are drawn next year to reflect
population shifts since the last census, incarcerated people will be counted in
their home communities. The Supreme Court requires that each legislative
district must have roughly the same population, thereby giving each resident
equal representation. Crucially, Blankenbush
and Russell are scrambling to call prisoners "constituents" because they've
noticed that their districts are falling short on actual constituents.
The New York Constitution mandates
that incarcerated people be counted as part of their home communities, not at
the prison. "No person shall be
deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his presence or
absence, while confined in any public prison." ( N.Y.
Const. Art. 2-4). Further,
the state's highest court held that a prison is not a place of residence in People v. Cady, 143 N.Y. 100 (1847).
Despite this, in a desperate
attempt to save his political career, Blankenbush is supporting a bill that
would reverse last August's legislation and count prisoners where they're
incarcerated. Who is Blankenbush
trying to fool with his attempt to ignore the fundamental democratic principle
of "one person, one vote" by pretending that the gerrymandering bill he
supports wouldn't violate the law?
When a district contains a prison,
the federal census counts the incarcerated people in that district as
population, thereby artificially inflating the actual number of residents and padding
the legislative district. For
example, this can result in a district of 2,500 constituents and 2,500
prisoners having the political clout of 5,000 constituents. This phenomenon awards those who live
adjacent to a prison more influence than their neighbors in other districts.
Blankenbush and his Republican
colleagues, flaunting their lack of command over the state constitution, say
that it requires incarcerated people to be counted in the prisons. While the federal census data does
this, it is common and legally permissible under Federal law to adjust the
census data. Indeed, in New York,
it is now the law.
Russell, on the other hand, makes
it personal. She claims, "If they
want to be counted at home, they shouldn't have done something to be
incarcerated." Russell is
wrong. The prisoners didn't ask to
be counted at home. The
legislature brought an end to prison-based gerrymandering and brought New
York's laws in harmony with the state constitution.