Prison Math

Brian Perry

On April Fool's Day this year state prison wardens gave more than 5,600 inmates time off from their hourly-wage jobs to fill out their census forms. The wardens know how many inmates they have, of course, but only the prisoners know the answers to the more detailed questions posed in the national headcount. So each inmate who cooperated was paid $1--money, Department of Corrections officials are quick to stress, that didn't come from taxpayers' pockets.

A dollar may not sound like much of an incentive, but prison wages are often less than 75 cents an hour and inmates must turn over half of every penny earned to pay court-ordered restitution and child support. In this case, however, inmates got to keep the whole greenback--symbolic, no doubt, of the importance of the census.

The census, as Minnesotans were repeatedly reminded last spring, means money for basic services. The detailed demographic information people offer up on their census forms every ten years translates into federal dollars to help their communities pay for everything from affordable housing to road repair. Prisoners, however, don't get counted as residents of their former neighborhoods. Instead, the census adds them to the populations of the communities where they are serving time.

Until recently, this historic oddity has not been much of an issue. But since the 1990 census the inmate population has nearly doubled nationwide to almost 2 million--or one of every 150 people--sparking a prison-building boom throughout rural America. And that means that following the 2000 census, when the federal government begins doling out the estimated $2 trillion in federal funds riding on this count over the next decade, rural communities will profit at the expense of the urban poor.

"We're putting so many people in prison now that this count has become a really big deal for a lot of states," says Jenni Gainsborough, a senior policy analyst with the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocating criminal-justice reform. Prisoners' low wages, Gainsborough says, drive down an area's per capita income, making prison towns appear poor enough to qualify for extra federal aid that used to go to inner cities.

"Wisconsin, for example," explains Gainsborough, has "sent so many people to prisons out of state that they've already lost millions of federal dollars and will lose more when the new count comes out. They didn't want to bear the cost of building new prisons so they shipped them out, not realizing what an impact that would have." Since census data is also used to determine the boundaries of legislative districts, she adds, Wisconsin's exporting of inmates may soon cost the state a congressional district--never mind that felons can't vote.

Officials in Minnesota have yet to confront these kinds of economic and political nightmares, but only because the state's incarceration rate (as of last December) is still the lowest in the nation. Currently, the state's eight adult prisons house 6,251 inmates--a fraction of Minnesota's more than 4.5 million residents. That number may be low, but Gainsborough cautions that it's double what it was ten years ago and doubtless will continue to rise. Indeed, officials estimate that 8,000 men and women will live in state prisons by 2008.

"We haven't really looked at how our correctional facilities are expanding and contracting," says Tom Gillaspy, Minnesota's state demographer, who works in the Office of Strategic and Long Range Planning. "But we certainly could get to the point where there is enough of an inmate population to be an issue for the state. It's an interesting question and I don't think anyone has looked into it yet."

According to Gillaspy, the census directs $2,000-$3,000 per person counted to any given community each decade, not including additional census-based funding distributed to poor communities. If any one area loses or gains enough people, those dollars start to add up. And with so much cash on the line, it's easy to see why small, often impoverished towns welcome new prisons as a means of economic development.

Last February Minnesota opened its first new prison for men in 17 years. The behemoth high-tech facility built in Rush City has 950 beds and will eventually be expanded to hold a maximum of 1,550 inmates. At last count, Rush City, a once-sleepy burg located 55 miles north of the Twin Cities, had just 1,600 residents. If Gillaspy's math is correct, when the new prison fills up it could bring the town some $5 million in federal funding.

If that happens, Rush City's revitalization will come at a cost to Hennepin County, which already stands to lose more than $6 million in the next decade as more and more of its residents begin to call rural prisons home. More than 30 percent of Minnesota's prison inmates were convicted in Hennepin County, says Corrections Department spokeswoman Shari Burt. Not all of them may have been residents of the county, she explains, "but it's reasonable to assume that most of them were and they would have been counted there."

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