Hawaii prisoners held on Mainland skew census results
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
For more than 200 years, U.S. census campaigns have counted prisoners according to the states in which they are incarcerated.
The practice, part of the U.S. Census Bureau's "usual residence" rule, traditionally has been regarded as an efficient and mostly innocuous way of enumerating prison populations with little risk of double-counting.
But census reform advocates are calling for change as the U.S. prison population has soared and the implications of the practice have become clearer.
The usual residence rule has particular impact on states like Hawai'i that ship thousands of inmates to out-of-state prisons to ease prison crowding — and on the receiving states as well.
Momi Fernandez, director of the Data and Information/Census Information Center at the Native Hawaiian advocacy group Papa Ola Lōkahi, said the impact of the rule costs Hawai'i millions of dollars in lost federal funding and ultimately hurts prisoners in their attempt to re-integrate with their communities upon their release.
Census reform advocates also argue that large concentrations of prisoners — particularly in the small, rural communities where prisons-for-rent have proliferated in recent years — compromise the integrity of census data and raise threat of gerrymandering during district reapportionment.
In the 2000 census, prisoners from Hawai'i unknowingly played a part in just such a scenario.
According to census data, Native Hawaiians accounted for roughly half of the resident population of Appleton township in Swift County, Minn. — because of a contract between the state of Hawai'i and the Corrections Corporation of America, which operated the district's Prairie Correctional Facility.
Peter Wagner, founder of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, said counting Hawai'i prisoners as residents of the district surrounding the prison artifically inflated the area's population profile for redistricting purposes and unfairly weighted the influence of district voters in county governance.
Wagner is one of a growing number of people calling for the U.S. Census Bureau to amend its "usual residence" rule so that inmates are counted in the areas in which they normally reside (and to which they would likely return upon release) rather than where they are held as prisoners.
"The Census Bureau wants its data to be useful," Wagner said. "Two hundred years ago, (the usual residence rule) made sense. But now there are many more people in prison and the way census data is used by local governments and other agencies is much more complex."
Fernandez also said the "usual residence" policy — which defines residence as where a person eats and sleeps most of the time — is in direct conflict with a state statute [HRS 11-13(5)] which states that a person does not lose residence while incarcerated.
1.4 MILLION IN PRISON
Despite a rare decline in overall U.S. prison population last year, the number of Americans behind bars has increased exponentially over the last several decades, from fewer than 175,000 in 1972 to more than 1.4 million this year.
As of May 10, Hawai'i had 1,935 inmates in Mainland facilities, all in Arizona, according to the Department of Public Safety's Corrections Division. Saguaro Correctional Center houses 1,875 of the prisoners; 60 more are housed at Red Rock Correctional Center. Both facilities are in Eloy, Ariz., which has a total population of 10,500, according to a 2005 census estimate.
Wagner said that the census bureau plans an early release of prison count data this year to provide states and counties with information necessary for a more accurate enumeration of their populations for policymaking purposes.
In March, Maryland became the first state to enact a law requiring that inmates be counted according to where they are from, not where they are incarcerated.
Fernandez said she supports any reform that allows Hawai'i prisoners on the Mainland to declare their rightful residence — both for the good of the state and themselves.
Conservative estimates place the cost (in lost federal funding) of each uncounted resident at about $1,200. Fernandez said a more likely estimate is $2,500, putting Hawai'i's total in lost federal funding at nearly $5 million.
"Could we use that?" Fernandez said. "Heck, yeah! We have to pay to have (inmates) housed in other states. Why not count them as part of our population and use the additional funding to offset the cost — especially in these economic times?"
Fernandez said she has received letters from inmates in Arizona who are upset that they are not being included in the Hawai'i count.
Part of the problem, both Wagner and Fernandez note, is the differing ways individual prison populations are enumerated. In some areas, prison employees are sworn in as official census takers and allowed to go cell to cell to enumerate the population of their facility. In other places, like Hawai'i, staffing limitations make such detailed counting unfeasible.
This year, the responsibility for collecting census information on Hawai'i's nearly 6,000 inmates housed in state fell to management analysts who examined existing information from the system's data files.
A similar procedure was used at the Saguaro facility, Fernandez said.
"One of the prisoners said a guard came and asked for his ethnicity but nothing else," she said.
"He realized later that it was for the census. He and the other Hawai'i prisoners didn't get an opportunity to answer for themselves."
According to the Census Bureau, more than half of the the populations of Hālawa Correctional Facility and Waiawa Correctional Facility are Native Hawaiian.
Fernandez said the disproportionate number of inmates who identify themselves as Native Hawaiian underscores the potential damage of not counting prisoners held out of state.
"It affects programs," she said. "When they get out of prison, they're expected to rejoin their communities. They'll need Native Hawaiian health programs, continuing education, job training, access to libraries and roadways, and other services. Many come out and become very effective members of society, but we have to make sure that these services are available, and to do that we need an accurate count."
Fernandez said she has spoken with Lt. Gov. James Aiona about the issue and she intends to raise it again at an upcoming convention of justice center advocates on the Mainland.