Racial bias, prisoners and the American Census for 2010

The upcoming census in United States has created a big controversy as rural and urban areas battle to hold prison inmates as their own.

The problem lies in the way that the Census considers residence for people who are incarcerated. Even though the Census uses the residence rule which consistently results in counting people at their homes, prisoners are not given that right and are instead considered as residents of the community that contains the prison.

These 'phantom constituents', as Peter Wagner of Prison Policy Initiative calls them, strongly influence the political representation in the districts involved: most of them are Black and Latinos coming from urban areas but they are incarcerated in prisons situated in rural areas, where the population is mostly white and Republican.

The numbers of prisoners add to a constituency's population leading to higher political representation and a shift to economic power away from the underprivileged urban areas where the inmates come from. As the prisoners are not allowed to vote, they are not simply stripped of their voting rights; they are also considered as bodies of a different community which deprives their original community of the support it urgently needs.

A recent campaign in New York City urged for immediate change with the current situation being under fierce criticism by social justice groups, organisations and lawmakers who are attempting to pass a bill to change the way the prisoners are counted.

As Rev. Al Sharpton said, 'I think that this is the voters' 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.'

This situation is inevitably linked with the drug policy in the United States and especially in New York. According to Harrison and Beck of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 'half of all persons incarcerated under state jurisdiction are for non-violent offenses, and 20% (in State prisons, whereas Federal prison percentages are higher) are incarcerated for drug offences'.

Also, as Harry G. Levine and Deborah Peterson Small have attempted to demonstrate in their study 'Marijuana Arrest Crusade: Racial Bias and Police Policy in New York City, 1997-2007', there is a distinct link between drug-related arrests and racial bias in New York. They noted an eleven fold increase in arrests for marijuana possession in the decade between 1997-2006. This increase has been coloured with discrimination as the rate of Hispanics and Blacks arrested is respectively nearly three and five times higher than the rate of Whites even if Hispanics and Blacks account for less of the city's population than Whites.

Deborah Peterson Small is also leading the Break the Chains initiative which is 'actively involved in the campaign to equalize federal sentences for cocaine offences' as the organisation sees that the difference in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offences 'has been a major reason for the dramatic increase in the federal prison population and the over representation of African American men'.

The police policy on drug arrests therefore seems to be shaping a rather unfortunate situation which is not simply social but highly political as the Census regards prisoners as 'phantom constituents' who may not have the right to vote but affect the electoral results without their expressed will. What it ultimately means is that while people of colour lose their right to vote and to support their community, the rural and conservative areas are benefitting from this loss economically and politically.

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