Prisoners will count

Stephon Johnson | 4/12/2011, 4:39 p.m.

"This bill is about justice," said New York State Sen. Eric Schneiderman on Monday at City Hall. "This is bill is something I've been working on for quite a while."

Joined by Council members Robert Jackson, Ydanis Rodriguez, Larry Seabrook and Debi Rose, Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat and others, Schneiderman spoke of a resolution passed by the Civil Rights Committee that calls on Albany to amend the Election Law so prisoners are counted as residents of the county they resided in prior to incarceration and not the county of the prison they're in on the Census. The bill will eventually go to a vote on the City Council floor.

According to Schneiderman, the United States as a whole has 2.4 million people in prison, which means even though the country has 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of the world's prison population. "America went to a policy of mass incarceration as a way to make us feel better," he said. "This is a disaster for many reasons. It doesn't reduce crime [and] it results in 700,000 people a year being dumped into poor communities all across America with poor job prospects and no support services." This, according to Schneiderman, brings about massive benefits for the rural and small towns that prisons usually call home and leaves the poor urban areas of major cities, where many prisoners come from, in the dust.

The argument brought forth by the resolution states that counting voters as residents of counties where they're imprisoned creates a huge population shift from the urban to rural areas of New York, which results in more funding for said rural areas, more seats in the State Assembly and more seats in the State Senate. Jackson broke things down for everyone in the room.

"If you look at New York as a prison system, you have approximately 65,000 prisoners. Where do the majority of them come from? The urban areas--mainly New York City," Jackson stated. "Once they're not incarcerated anymore, where do they go? They come back to the neighborhoods they have had resided in." Jackson also emphasized that unless it's an emergency, most prisoners don't use the town facilities and therefore shouldn't be counted as citizens. "In prison, they don't go to the community centers up there to play basketball or to play soccer. They don't use the parks up there," he said. "They may clean them, but they don't use them. They don't use the schools up there. They don't use any of the facilities up there except possibly one. If there's an emergency medical procedure, they may have to go to the hospital."

"Everything [else] is done within the prison," said Jackson. "So the funding from the government needs to come to the areas where it's needed most, from which they come and where they're going to return."

This resolution comes off of the recently published Prison Policy Initiative Census Project study, which can be found online. In the study, 76 percent of New York State's prison population comes from New York City and seven State senatorial districts meet the minimum population size requirements only if they count the prisoners as residents. "It really was mechanically done, in my view, to maintain the Republican majority in the Senate," said Schneiderman.