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Know the West

When ‘usual residence’ is a prison

Census method of counting prisoners distorts demographics.

If a demographer were to draw up a profile of eastern Colorado’s Crowley County using the most recent census data, it would appear to be far more diverse and densely populated than neighboring counties. About 6,000 people live in the 800-square-mile county’s four small towns, and about 47 percent of the population is either Latino, Black or Indigenous, considerably higher than the state as a whole.

 

The numbers are accurate, but they are also distorted by the fact that nearly half of the populace aren’t truly members of the community; they don’t eat at local restaurants, vote in local elections or send their children to school. That’s because at least 45% of the county’s residents are incarcerated, either in the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, a state prison, or the Crowley County Correctional Facility, which is operated by private contractor CoreCivic. Owing to the Census Bureau’s “usual residence” rule, however, they are counted as residents of Crowley County, rather than the places they lived prior to incarceration.

Crowley County is an extreme example of this phenomenon, but it’s far from unique. Across the Western United States, population numbers and demographic statistics are skewed in counties with large numbers of prisoners, giving rural counties outsized political power and creating a false picture of communities for policymakers.

 

The 1790 law establishing the U.S. census states that people should be counted at their “usual place of abode,” defined as the place where they “live and sleep most of the time” on census day, which is April 1. The rule’s application has evolved slightly: Members of the military, for example, were initially counted where they were deployed. In 1970, the Census Bureau began counting them in their home states, though this year, soldiers will be considered as residents of the bases where they’re stationed. Because religious missionaries are counted at their mission location, Utah, with its many out-of-state Latter-day Saints, usually experiences an 11,000-person dent in its population count. But this year, due to COVID-19, the church ordered all missionaries to return before April, meaning they will be counted in their home states.

Prisoners, however, will still be counted where they’re imprisoned, despite nearly 80,000 comments urging the Census Bureau to end the practice. In 2016, when the federal government called for input on possible changes to residence criteria, many bemoaned the count’s effects on electoral districts, which are based on census population counts. The rule currently shifts political power away from prisoners’ home communities in favor of prison communities, which are often rural, white majority and conservative.

In the 1970s, prison populations were seldom large enough relative to the surrounding areas to have a significant impact. But policy changes since the 1980s have greatly expanded the national prison population, resulting in a surge of prison construction, particularly in rural communities where extractive industries and agriculture are on the wane. On paper, such communities appear to be thriving, diverse places; in reality, they are essentially penal colonies, where a significant portion of the populace lives behind bars.

An inmate reads in his cell at Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City, Colorado.
Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Prison Policy Initiative, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Infographic design: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.