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Map courtesy Prison Policy Initiative
Map courtesy Prison Policy Initiative

Where should prisoners be counted? The Downstate view.

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Where should prisoners be counted? Right now, inmates in New York prisons are counted IN prison - rather than in their hometowns. Critics call the practice "prison-based gerrymandering," and New York lawmakers are considering whether to end it this year. At an event in New York City Hall last month, Reverend Al Sharpton helped launch a campaign to change the inmate count. "I think that this is the voters rights and civil rights issue of this year in the state of New York," said Sharpton. But others think the mostly Upstate communities that host prisons deserve the boost in political power that comes with the count of inmates. Lawmakers need to settle the issue before political redistricting efforts get underway next year. In a collaboration between WNYC in New York City and North Country Public Radio, we bring you both sides of the issue. Here's the view from Downstate, from reporter Beth Fertig from WNYC.

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Harlem's Vilma Ortiz Donovan says it's not right that she was counted as part of the population of Beacon, NY while in prison there.  Photo: WNYC

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Vilma Ortiz Donovan admits she wasn't always a model citizen. She went to prison twice for selling cocaine, and was released last year after serving a three year sentence. "I was tired and I wanted something better," she recalls. "I don't want prison anymore, and I wanted to change."

Since then, the 47 year old got a job managing the front desk at the Fortune Society, which helps former prisoners connect with services. She also registered to vote for the first time. And she was surprised to learn that while incarcerated, her legal residence was the prison in Beacon, New York - sixty miles away from her hometown of Huntington, Long Island.

"That makes no sense to me whatsoever," she says. "Because the resources that we need, the hospitals, the childcare centers, the education, all of that is going to a town where I'm not benefitting from it."

Donovan isn't the only one who finds that strange.

"There's a fundamental injustice in taking people who have no real connection to the communities where the prisons are located and using them, even though they can't vote, to inflate the population of those districts," says State Senator Eric Schneiderman. He's introduced a bill to end what he calls prison-based gerrymandering. Schneiderman is a Democrat who represents Upper Manhattan and Riverdale. He points to estimates that half of the state's 58 thousand prisoners committed crimes in New York City.

"The districts that export prisoners, like my district in Upper Manhattan, those districts are districts with high crime rates, poverty," he explains, "are usually associated with bad schools and other resources. And yet we are denied the same fair representation we would get if our prisoners were counted as a part of our district."

If they didn't use prisoners to boost their count, Schneiderman claims seven districts with prisons wouldn't even meet the minimum population requirements for a state Senate seat. Those districts are all rural and located way upstate. And most are held by Republicans.

State Senator Dale Volker is one of them. His district is in western New York near Lake Erie, where about 9000 residents are prisoners.  Volker doesn't think he'd lose his seat if district lines are redrawn without the prisoners after this year's Census. But he does think the bill is about politics. He sees it as a power grab by urban lawmakers to claim prisoners who don't live in their districts, either.

" How do we know where they should be located?" Volker asks. "The only place we know they're going to be located is where they are. As I understand the bill, they want these people listed from the point of origin because they want more people listed wherever they came from - Queens or Manhattan or wherever."

Schneiderman acknowledges it will be hard to get Republicans onboard, and even some upstate Democrats. His bill would have to pass this year in order for lawmakers to change how they use the 2010 Census in drawing district lines. It would not have any effect on funding. But some supporters believe it could affect resources indirectly through political leverage.

Fifty nine year old Keith Massey often babysits for his four year old granddaughter Yasmin in his Harlem apartment, laughing as he tells her "no, goodbye!" as she tries to charm him into giving her candy. He's a housing activist with the group Community Voices Heard, and can tell you what's needed here. "We're in need of new elevators or better kept elevators than the elevators we have because they break down almost on a daily basis," he says.

If prisoners from Harlem were counted here instead of upstate, Massey thinks the whole district would benefit. "You would have legislators who would be sympathetic where they would advocate and vote for, I mean like they bailed out Wall Street. Why can't you not bail out public housing?"

 It's hard to prove that counting prisoners in their districts of origin would lead to any big shakeups. Even if half of the state's 58 thousand prisoners were considered residents of New York City, they'd be scattered around the five boroughs. That's probably not even enough to create an extra assembly district.

The issue of whether to count prisoners is now gaining national attention. The U-S Census bureau plans to provide states with prison population data earlier than usual, in case they want to subtract those numbers when drawing their district lines.

Beth Fertig, WNYC Radio

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