March 30, 2010
NY Daily News
The last time the census was done – in 2000 – Brooklynite Ramon Velasquez was locked up in Attica state prison for robbery.
According to the Census Bureau, Velasquez lived not in hardscrabble Bushwick, but in rural Attica Village, 264 miles away.
“Knowing that they counted me in Attica was a shock to me,” said Velasquez, 50, a volunteer with the New York City AIDS Housing Network.
“It’s not fair because we don’t use their services. We’re being counted just for a political purpose. You don’t have many people up there in those counties.”
Velasquez is the face of a long-running battle between the Census Bureau, which counts prisoners in the areas they are incarcerated, and big-city politicians who want them counted where they really live. It’s not about money: Subtracting the 29,000 New York City inmates wouldn’t cut deeply into the city’s federal funding.
It’s about political clout: Census figures are used to draw the state’s legislative districts. Urban areas get hurt when inmates are counted as living upstate.
“It’s just fundamentally unfair,” state Sen. Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan, Bronx) said of the practice, called prison-based gerrymandering, which, he says, gives rural, upstate areas with prisons outsize political influence.
“The poor communities the prisoners come from … are punished every 10 years,” said Schneiderman, who has introduced a bill with Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) to change things on a state level.
Pols from the upstate districts that host the prisons say the inmates are a public safety risk and use local services like water and sewers. Also, they say, it isn’t clear that the prisoners will head back home after they are released.
“A lot of the families of the inmates live near the prison,” said Republican state Sen. Dale Volker, whose upstate district includes Attica and seven other state prisons. “It really doesn’t make a lot of sense to take the prison people and say well, they came from Manhattan and therefore they should be counted in Manhattan.”
College students, people in the military and nursing home residents – who, unlike prisoners, can vote – are counted where they are living at census time.
The 2010 census forms have been mailed out – so it is too late to change how this census collects prisoners’ information.
Schneiderman and Jeffries’ bill would require New York State to use census information differently. The Census Bureau will tell states how many people are in prisons by this May. States can then decide where inmates should be counted.
The nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative says that if prisoners hadn’t been counted as “phantom residents” in 2000, seven upstate Senate districts wouldn’t have met minimum population requirements.
“The Census Bureau counted these people this way because it made sense 200 years ago,” said the group’s executive director, Peter Wagner. “Now, there’s a lot more prisoners, they are far from home, and we use the data to draw legislative districts.”
As for Velasquez, who was released from prison three years ago, he has mailed back his completed 2010 census form. “[This time] I’m being counted where I really live,” he said.