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Where does a prisoner live? Where is his “residence”? How the U.S. Census Bureau answers that question will change the reported size and racial make-up of several rural areas, according to a Washington Post story. For example, one New York state senate district running up to the Canadian border has 13 prisons and more than 13,500 prisoners (earning the rural territory the nickname “Little Siberia”). The prisoners can’t vote. They “reside” there by court order and will leave as soon as they can. They are also disproportionately black and Hispanic. But they are counted as residents when it comes time to draw legislative districts.

The Prison Policy Initiative contends that “counting inmates in prisons distorts population numbers in New York and several other states. Rural areas are shown to be more populous than they are, these critics say, while urban areas — which produce most of the inmates — are routinely under-counted,” write reporter Keith Richburg. “States and counties rely on population numbers from the census to draw their legislative districts. In New York and some other states, Republicans continue to have clout in legislatures because they are elected from safely conservative, rural districts even as those areas lose people….’It’s systemic distortion,’ said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative. ‘You have a disproportionately black and Hispanic male population that is counted in the wrong spot.’”

An alternative would be to count the prisoners at their last known address, a method that would reduce the number of people the Census counts in some rural communities. And that would change the size and number of rural legislative districts.

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