In a New York Times opinion piece, Anthony Thompson asks an interesting question: “When do communities want prisoners in their backyard?” The answer: when it’s census-taking time.
The reason for this sudden reversal of the NIMBY (not in my backyard) stance has to do with money—a lot of it. Once the counting is done, population figures compiled by the census will determine the distribution of at least $300 billion in federal funding to state and local governments. And this has some legislators doing a money, and power, grab.
Counting inmates as “residents” to pad state legislative districts is an unsavory practice that exaggerates the political power of the largely rural districts where prisons are built and diminishes the power of the mainly urban districts where inmates come from and where they inevitably return.
The population figures we’re talking about are considerable. For instance, one out of every three people who moved to upstate New York in the last decade actually “moved” into newly constructed prisons.
By claiming prisoners as constituents, lawmakers in these over-counted districts deprive prisoners of a chance to receive community-based job training, substance abuse treatment, family counseling and dozens of other services necessary for making a successful reentry to their own hometowns. Without these programs, many ex-offenders are likely to return to the criminal activities that landed them in prison in the first place.
Isn’t is just a little troubling that legislative districts propped up by prison populations are snatching funds that should go to community-based rehabilitative programs, basically guaranteeing that prisoners will recidivate?
As the article’s title, “Democracy Behind Bars,” suggests, there is something fundamentally unfair, even un-American, about using the incarcerated for monetary gain and political power. Thompson describes the politics as “complicated” but calls on the Obama administration to stop the self-perpetuating cycle by changing the residence rule and instead counting prisoners serving a sentence of 10 years or less as residents of their home communities.
Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: Using census figures to rob the neighborhoods that prisoners call home and—more important—to which they will return, doesn’t add up.