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Pen Pals

How the US Census Gives Power to the Rural Counties Where Prisons Are Built

Inmates generally come from the city but get locked up in rural prisons—and that means in many states, they're counted as residents of these podunk towns and counties, giving those communities more political power.

by Bert Burykill
Nov 27 2013, 9:45pm

A lot of the time, when someone in New York City says they’re going “upstate” it means they’re going to prison. Most of the state prisons are north of the city, some practically on the Canadian border, and songs like Mobb Deep’s “Up North Trip” have helped some slang terms about New York lockups spread to other states—so in some places, “up top” won’t actually be in the frozen north, just an area where some country corn-and-cow-christ-on-a-stick bullshit is going on. In NYC, city folk call pretty much anything north of the Bronx “upstate,” even spots in Westchester County like Yonkers... some crackers have no clue that New York extends seven hours north to Montreal and eight hours northwest to places like Buffalo—and when you’re way the hell out there, it’s like you’re in the Midwest.

There will forever be conspiracies about why the powers that be house inmates people so far away from their families, because it seems so easy to lock us up close to home. In 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo closed the Arthur Kill Prison in Staten Island, which was the only real prison in the five boroughs... Before that got shut down, inmates used to bust their asses behaving like good prisoners so they could transfer close to home.

Whatever the reason, it’s true that prisons are usually in very rural, rundown areas where the factories, mines, or farms that used to prop up communities collapsed long ago. Prisons fill that void, becoming economic engines that support a lot of small towns. When large populations are removed from cities and locked up in the podunk regions, they are affecting the economy a whole lot. When I worked outside the wall at Clinton Correctional in Dannemora, doing jobs such as burying dead inmates, there was an insane amount of laborers, machinery, and unfinished-looking projects all over the place. I had a cool CO boss back then who talked to us like real people (dare I say even “friends”?) and he explained that Clinton had seven contracts with various construction companies going on at once. It looked like they were literally digging holes and then filling them again. That’s gotta make some former factory worker a pretty good bit of cash.

Then there’s the prison commissary, where we’d buy food, hygiene supplies, and other random bullshit. It may not seem like it would have that much of an effect on the local economy, but for a shitty little area like Clinton Country, where there are a bunch of prisons holding maybe 5,000 inmates total, it can add up. I spent about $100 a month at the commissary, and maybe 1,500 other prisoners were doing the same—that’s $100,000 a month that gets pumpe into the county that wouldn’t be there without prisons.

More so than the money, though, prisons give “upstate” areas all over the country political power. I’m talking about the ridiculous practice of the Census counting inmates as part of the local population—with higher population comes more seats in state legislatures and the House of Representatives, and more seats mean more power. Maryland recently changed this policy so prisoners could count as residents of the communities they came from, but that was only after lawmakers figured out that “inmates were nearly a fifth of the ‘residents’ in one legislative district,” giving a rural municipality much more political power than it should have been afforded.

Convicts can’t vote anyway in most states, but it adds a whole fucked-up layer to imagine that inmates are potentially giving extra legislative seats to the places where the prisons got built. That’s important because if you give the prison-building communities power, they sure as shit aren’t ever going to vote to put less people behind bars. I learned about the Three-Fifths Compromise back in seventh grade and I remember getting pissed off about it. Slaves couldn’t vote but they got counted as three-fifths of a person to give the slave states more say in Congress? What a crock of shit. But today, with the prison population being so heavily black, you gotta look at this system of prison gerrymandering and wonder if it all comes to the same place.

Obviously, the only reason to count inmates as the Census does is to transfer power from the cities where inmates come from to the rural regions—from the prisoners to the prison guards who would be unemployed if the incarceration industry ever dried up. Especially in New York, there’s a never-ending battle between urban and rural political entities. The state legislature is pretty much split between urban Democrats and rural Republicans. More bluntly, places where blacks and latinos live vote Democrat and lily-white regions are pure Republican. Even a butt-fucking duck could see that if the mostly brown-skinned prisoners are counted as residents of their prison’s counties, it transfers power to the white folks whose policies are often all about abusing those same brown-skinned people. That’s not just silencing prison inmates’ voices, that’s treating them like damn sock puppets.

I am proud that New York is one of the few states that has taken a stand against this unjust policy, but I suspect that’s only because Democratic politicians from the city realized they were losing some of their juice. Other states should follow suit just for the sake of fairness, but who the fuck knows if they will? How the supposedly educated, refined, responsible people who are the leaders of our country continue this act of dishonest gerrymandering is beyond me... One thing for sure is that the prisoners have no say in this.

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.

Previously: A Reminder That Sheriff Joe Is the Worst Lawman in America

Thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Rupert Ganzer