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Ogdensburg Correctional Facility sits on prime St. Lawrence riverfront.  It's slated for closure, but the community's fighting to save its nearly 300 jobs.
Ogdensburg Correctional Facility sits on prime St. Lawrence riverfront. It's slated for closure, but the community's fighting to save its nearly 300 jobs.

Where should prisoners be counted in New York? The Upstate view.

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This March, the 2010 Census count begins, a process required by the Constitution every 10 years, which helps, primarily, in determining the number of seats each state gets in Congress. But what happens if someone is in a prison far from home? How should he be counted by the state? The controversial prisoner census issue splits largely along an urban and rural divide. New York City politicians are pushing to end the practice of counting prisoners where they're jailed. But upstate, where the majority of prisons are located, politicians think they deserve the boost in political power that comes with counting prisoners. Lawmakers need to settle the issue before political redistricting efforts get underway next year. In a collaboration between North Country Public Radio and WNYC, David Sommerstein reports on the view from the North Country.

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<em>Ogdensburg Journal</em> publisher, Chuck Kelly, is leading that fight.

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David Sommerstein
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To understand why the prisoner counting issue matters so much to Upstate New Yorkers, places where there are prisons, come visit the city of Ogdensburg.  I'm David Sommerstein, and right now I'm standing on part of Ogdensburg's waterfront on the mighty St. Lawrence River.  It's blue, it's a sunny day.  I can hear some birds.  I can see the bridge to Canada.  If you're driving into Ogdensburg on that bridge, the first thing you see isn't a bustling marina or quaint riverside shops and restaurants, but the barbed wire of a state sex offender lockup.  Then you see two state prisons, employing more than 500 people in an area that's desperate for jobs...

We've lost Diamond National, Standard Shade Roller, Brecker Moore were all along the river, all employed people.

Chuck Kelly runs down the list of factories long gone.  He's publisher of the Ogdensburg Journal, a reporter there for 55 years.  And he's the city's biggest booster.

We have the second lowest per capita income in the whole 62 counties of the state of New York.  We're poverty.  There's no other way to tell you that.

When the Pysch center downsized in the 1970s and 80s, Kelly says a thousand jobs were lost.  He led a fight to replace them with two prisons, at a time when other places were fighting to keep jails away.

The truth of the matter is New York City and the metropolitan areas didn't want them.  We needed the jobs, so we went after those jobs.

Today, Ogdensburg does also benefits from a little extra political representation.  About 1000 inmates - mostly from urban areas - with no voting rights - are counted as living here.  If Ogdensburg benefits, Kelly says, it's just compensation for the public security risk of housing criminals.

State Senator Darrel Aubertine, a Democrat, represents five prisons, including the two in Ogdensburg.  He says they use water and sewer and local courts and other infrastructure.

That in part is paid for by those inmates being counted in this region.

Aubertine says he'll vote against Senator Schneidermann's bill to change the way prisoners are counted.  So will Republican Senator Betty Little, whose district includes 12 prisons with 13,000 prisoners.

The purpose of the census is to take a picture of a certain period of time.

April 1st, 2010, to be exact.

That picture shows who is living where.

If you're going to count inmates in the home districts, Little argues, what about college students?  Or nursing home residents?  Or rehab patients?

I believe they should be counted where they are as they always have been and you shouldn't single out an inmate population over these other populations.

Critics of that argument say college students vote and work and live in the community.  Inmates don't.

All that aside, Little acknowledges...this is about power.

This is absolutely political.

If prisoners were counted back home, Senator Aubertine's and Senator Little's and five other Senate districts in northern and western New York would have to get a little bigger when new lines are drawn after the census.  One might get swallowed up by a district further downstate.  June O'Neill chairs the New York State Democratic Executive Committee and lives in Canton.  She says those districts are already huge.

As those districts become larger geographically, the sheer ability of our representatives to get around them and to do what they need to do in order to effectively hear the concerns of the people and do constituent work becomes negatively impacted.

Advocates of the inmate count change say this isn't an Upstate versus Downstate thing.  If you're in an Upstate district that doesn't have a prison, you suffer the same distortion of democracy as someone in New York City who doesn't.

Most counties in the North Country actually decided to leave prisoners out when they drew their county legislative districts after the 2000 census.  EssexCounty's law argues that inmates "do not participate in the life of EssexCounty, and do not affect the social and economic character of the towns" in which they are incarcerated.  Only St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties do count the inmates for districting purposes.

Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative says the fact is prison districts are padded with inmates who don't actually live there - and that affects policy and voting.

And then the result is you've seen Upstate New York speak with one voice on prisons and criminal justice issues in a way that they haven't been able to on other issues important to Upstate.

Things like Rockefeller drug law reform, which most lawmakers with prisons in their district voted against.

The politics could explode in this spring's budget battles.  With the inmate population down - due to Rockefeller reform - Governor Paterson wants to close one of Ogdensburg's prison plus the ones in Moriah and LyonMountain.  500 jobs are at stake.

Senators Aubertine, Little, and local lawmakers are rallying to fight the cuts.  At a recent town hall meeting in nearby Massena, town supervisor Joe Gray said Albany is balancing the budget on Upstate's back..

It was OK to quote-unquote dump the prisoners on us 25 or 30 years ago.  Now it's OK to take them away.  We certainly are pretty important to the state and I think the state owes us something back, quite frankly.

Today, almost all New York State leaders are from New York City.  Many northern New Yorkers feel what little political power they have left is draining away.  If counting prisoners in their districts helps keep a toe-hold in Albany, then so be it.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein in Ogdensburg.

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