News & Politics

NY Inmates: Locked-Up, Counted Out?


One J. Murphy (New York State inmate No. 89B0219) was born in 1968. A white man, he was confined on January 27, 1989, for second degree attempted assault and paroled nine months later. Another J. Murphy (New York State inmate No. 94A7529), a black guy born in 1970, was locked up in 1994 and released in 1996 on two counts of attempted robbery in the second degree. Both men were busted in Nassau County. Namesake 1 did his time in Chautauqua County, Namesake 2 right on Van Dam Street in Queensboro. The question is, when these two guys were locked up, what was their “permanent home address”: the place where they came from, or the prison where they cooled their heels?

It’s an important question because a lot of federal and state money is awarded based on population, and America’s jails and prisons have swelled to hold 2.6 million guys and gals. That clientele is disproportionately non-white and poor—from neighborhoods that need all the help they can get—but the U.S. Census counts them as living in the often rural towns where prisons are located. So those rural areas get prison jobs, heftier populations, and more grant money, while inner cities lose young people to incarceration and forfeit funds because those people are counted elsewhere. The shift in population also skews representation in legislative bodies that are based on population, meaning the people making federal or state corrections policy are increasingly elected by voters benefiting from it, rather than those who are losing out.

Not surprisingly, advocates for inner cities, prisoners, and the poor, have asked the Census Bureau to think about changing the way it counts inmates. But in a report released last week, the Bureau indicated it isn’t interested in a new approach.

The reasons the Bureau cites are myriad: Not all prisons keep detailed information on where their inmates are from, and interviewing every prison would be too difficult. Doing so would cost about $250 million, and accuracy could suffer. What’s more, counting prisoners differently would introduce new disparities into the Census: prisoners would be counted at home, but college kids would be tabulated at school.

Plus, “Any change to the way the Congress directs the Census Bureau to conduct the census … will change the way states are apportioned; congressional, state, and local legislative districts are drawn; and government funds are distributed.”

Which is, like, exactly the point. The $250 million price tag certainly seems hefty when examined out of context. But that’s small potatoes compared to the federal grant money that hinges on these tabulations. And at $100 an inmate every ten years, the cost of a more accurate Census are a smidgen compared to the annual cost of locking them up. The in New York City’s jails is $59,000 a year; $100 buys you about 15 hours of confinement. Overall, the 2000 Census cost $6.5 billion. Fixing the inmate address problem would hike that cost about 3.8 percent.

The information on the two J. Murphys (I am neither, by the way) above was gleaned from the Inmate Look-Up tool of the New York State Department of Correctional Services. It seems like prisons could ask each inmate for his or her home address the same way institutions obtain each inmate’s race and date of birth. The Census Bureau acknowledges this. “It is possible that Congress could direct every federal, state, and local correctional facility to develop an administrative record that includes a ‘permanent address of record ‘ for each prisoner,” the report finds. “Our study did not examine changing current correctional facility procedures or implementing new requirements for correctional facilities.”

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