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Urban, Rural Areas Battle For Census Prison Populace

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Urban, Rural Areas Battle For Census Prison Populace

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Urban, Rural Areas Battle For Census Prison Populace

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

An urban-versus-rural battle is brewing over the census. Prison inmates are counted as residents of the prisons where they're locked up. And that inflates the population of the mostly white rural towns that have prisons. Why does it matter? Well, because higher population means more political representation and often more money for schools, road crews and other services.

Activists say the counting unfairly shifts power away from the poor city neighborhoods that most inmates come from.

North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: Ten years ago, the last time there was a census, 45,000 mostly African-American and Latino prisoners from New York City were locked up in farm country of upstate New York. As inmates, they couldn't vote. But they were counted as residents of those rural political districts anyway.

Chevelle Johnson(ph) was one of them.

Mr. CHEVELLE JOHNSON: It's like a double slap in the face. I can't vote, and you take my body and put it in another community, so my community has no political power, so none of my interests get taken care of.

SOMMERSTEIN: Peter Wagner calls them phantom constituents. In New York, they pad mostly white, mostly Republican districts that have been losing population.

Dr. PETER WAGNER (Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative): Prisoners are not part of the community of interest that surrounds the prison.

SOMMERSTEIN: They're more interested in drug crime and housing laws than, say, farms.

Dr. WAGNER: The system of one person, one vote entirely breaks down when we take people from one community of interest and then credit them to a completely different community for districting purposes.

SOMMERSTEIN: Wagner's not-for-profit, the Prison Policy Institute, wants to change the system nationwide. And it's starting in New York.

Unidentified Man: Good morning. And I apologize for the delays. I think...

SOMMERSTEIN: Social justice groups and lawmakers gathered recently at New York City Hall to launch a campaign. Reverend Al Sharpton brought the star power.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (National Action Network and National Urban League): I think that this is the voter rights and civil rights issue of this year in the state of New York, where you use people's bodies to count against their interests. There's nothing more blatant than that.

SOMMERSTEIN: The fix is actually simple. Just count inmates in the communities where they come from when new political districts are drawn after the 2010 census. The census count itself doesn't have to change at all.

But upstate, amidst the rolling fields where the prisons sit, people feel threatened.

It's deadline time in The Ogdensburg Journal newsroom, where publisher Chuck Kelly has been reporter and civic booster for 55 years.

Mr. CHUCK KELLY (Publisher, The Ogdensburg Journal): We have the second lowest per capita income in the whole 62 counties of the state of New York. We're poverty. There's no other way to tell you that.

SOMMERSTEIN: Ogdensburg is a rusty city on the St. Lawrence River, on the Canadian border. Its identity is deeply rooted in corrections. A century-old state psychiatric center occupies prime riverfront. Today, most of its stately red sandstone buildings sit empty, the result of mental hospital downsizing in the 1970s and '80s.

Kelly says a thousand jobs were lost. He led a fight to replace them with two prisons at a time when other places were fighting to keep jails away.

Mr. KELLY: The truth of the matter is New York City, the metropolitan areas didn't want them. We needed the jobs so we went after those jobs.

SOMMERSTEIN: If Ogdensburg benefits from the census count, Kelly says, it's just compensation for the public security risk of housing criminals.

State Senator Darrel Aubertine represents a district with five prisons, including the two in Ogdensburg, about 3,500 inmates in all. He says they use water and sewer and other infrastructure.

State Senator DARREL AUBERTINE (Democrat, New York): That in part is paid for by those inmates being counted in this region.

SOMMERSTEIN: Aubertine says he'll vote against a bill to change the way prisoners are counted. Not surprisingly, other lawmakers with prisons in their districts will, too. The reality is that Upstate New York would lose political clout.

State Senator Eric Schneiderman of Manhattan is the bill's sponsor. He says similar efforts are getting started in other states like Illinois, Texas and Maryland. He says it's fundamental democratic justice.

State Senator ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN (Democrat, New York): The poor communities that these prisoners come from need resources. They need good schools. They need treatment programs. And very often the representatives of their districts are really maintained by the artificial inflation provided by the prison count, they vote against those things.

SOMMERSTEIN: That makes Ogdensburg newspaperman Chuck Kelly howl.

Mr. KELLY: People up here have a right to eat too. They have a right to work.

SOMMERSTEIN: In New York politics, downstate and upstate are painted as two different worlds. But the places prisoners come from and the places where they're bunked share a lot in common: poverty, unemployment, and a hunger for the good schools and jobs that political power brings.

For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in northern New York.

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