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Census Bureau will count federal inmates as residents

Critics refer to the inclusion of prisoners in the census numbers as ‘prison gerrymandering’


Federal prisoners are being counted in the 2020 census, a decision critics call ‘prison gerrymandering.’ Photo/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Martin E. Comas
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — The thousands of inmates at the federal prison complex in Sumter County, Fla. — including serial child molester Larry Nassar and former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, serving time on corruption and fraud charges — may not seem like actual residents of this county about 50 miles northwest of Orlando.

After all, they can’t drive on local roads, take a walk in the park, check out books from any of the public libraries or vote in local elections while incarcerated at the largest federal prison in the country.

But according to the Census Bureau, the 6,162 prisoners at the Federal Correctional Complex-Coleman will be counted as residents of Sumter County — alongside the tens of thousands of nearby retirees sunning themselves by the pools at The Villages — when the nationwide count takes place this year.

Being counted as Sumter residents means the prisoners will play a role in how state lawmakers will redraw the area’s legislative and congressional districts based on the 2020 census.

But critics say counting prisoners this way presents a distorted picture of a county’s population and can lead to state and local government districts being inaccurately drawn.

“It can have a pretty big effect” on small rural counties such as Sumter, said Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Northampton, Mass., that researches mass criminalization and its effects on society.

The nonpartisan group calls the way inmates are counted “prison gerrymandering.”

The bigger the correctional facility, the more of an impact it has when state legislators begin carving up districts, Kajstura said. And large prisons are commonly built in rural areas with few residents, she pointed out.

For example, in Wisconsin, there are five counties and cities in rural areas where more than half of the local population is incarcerated, leading to more districts for the state’s lower house she said.

“We believe that everybody should be counted by the census by their last home address,” she said.

In addition to affecting redistricting, the prison population also boosts a county’s overall population when it applies for federal grants.

Sumter’s total inmate population accounts for about 6.4% of the county’s estimated population of 128,754.

Besides the federal prisoners — including Native American activist Leonard Peltier and former financier Allen Stanford, both of whom are serving lifelong sentences — the population count also includes 2,100 inmates incarcerated in Sumter Correctional Institution, a state prison in Bushnell.

Statewide, about half of 1% of Florida’s 21.2 million residents are inmates, according to census figures.

In Sumter, the ratio of inmates to the overall population is declining because of growth in The Villages. In 2011, more than 10% of the county’s “residents” were behind bars.

Frank Calascione, Sumter’s director of economic development, said the number of federal prisoners accounts for a “very, very small percentage” of the county’s overall population and therefore has little impact.

He also pointed out that Sumter County Commission districts are drawn by geography, rather than population, and commissioners are elected countywide.

“The growth rate of the population (of Sumter) from 2010 to 2018 was 37.8%, mainly driven by the expansion of The Villages retirement community,” Calascione said.

The ratio is magnified in Union County, where the state’s Union Correctional Institution — home of Florida’s death row — is a major employer.

About 4,875 prisoners make up nearly a third of the county’s total estimated population of nearly 15,500.

Union County Coordinator Jimmy Williams, who oversees the county’s day-to-day operations, said the large percentage of inmates being factored into the census population data can have a detrimental effect in luring in new jobs to the North Florida county.

Union is ranked as one of the poorest and least educated counties in the country. The three main industries in the county are timber, landscaping and corrections.

“Statistically, it hurts us,” Williams said about the census factoring in inmates into the overall population. “And it’s because of the inmate population.”

That’s why Williams and his staff are starting off 2020 putting together an economic plan they hope will lure in industries that offer high-wage jobs, such as in the solar industry. They hope to take advantage of neighboring Columbia County’s rapid growth.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the game,” he said.

Despite criticism over the system, state Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican whose district includes Sumter and much of Lake, said counting prisoners as residents of where they are incarcerated, rather than their last home address, is the most logical and “just the simplest way.”

“I’m certainly open to looking at a better way,” Baxley said. “But it might end up with some people being missed…. The predominant issue for me is that they are counted.”

He takes exception to criticism that counting prisoners as residents amounts to gerrymandering.

“Gerrymandering is a little bit of a strong term and conveys more of an intent to do something bad,” he said. “There may be some untoward effects on some communities and that certainly deserves some analysis…. But you may wind up with some people not even being counted. And that would concern me greatly.”

But those trying to change the system point to modest gains. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill in May to make his state the fifth to end the practice.

In New Jersey, a bill that would do likewise passed the state Senate, though it wasn’t taken up by the General Assembly.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Democratic Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, said the legislation is important to “ensure the voices in our communities are not diminished because their residents are serving time,” according to an NBC News report.