New York State’s failure until recently to modify Rockfeller-era strict drug-sentencing laws is blamed by New York Times columnist Brent Staples partly on politicians whose communities profit from prisons. When the state needed new prisons, Staples writes, most of them “ended up in upstate New York, where failing farms and hollowed-out cities offered a lot of room for building.” Nearly 30 percent of the people who were counted as moving into upstate New York during the 1990’s were prison inmates. The influx brought needed jobs to the region and resulted in districts whose economies revolve around prisons.
Staples complains that inmates “were magically transformed into ‘residents’ thanks to a quirk in the census rules that counts them as living at their prisons.” Felons are barred from voting in 48 of 50 states – including New York. Yet disenfranchised prisoners are included in the population counts that become the basis for drawing legislative districts. The Prison Policy Initiative’s Peter Wagner found seven upstate New York Senate districts that meet minimal population requirements only because prison inmates are included in the count. Prison rights argue that prison district politicians are more concerned about keeping the prisons full than about crime. Staples says that, “The idea of counting inmates as voters in the counties that imprison them is particularly repulsive given that inmates are nearly always stripped of the right to vote.” He says the practice recalls the U.S. under slavery, when slaves were barred from voting but counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation.