In­mates counted as Sumter res­i­dents

Crit­ics call census clas­si­fi­ca­tion ‘prison ger­ry­man­der­ing’

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Martin E. Co­mas

The thou­sands of in­mates at the fed­eral prison com­plex in Sumter County — in­clud­ing se­rial child mo­lester Larry Nas­sar and for­mer U.S. Rep. Cor­rine Brown, serv­ing time on cor­rup­tion and fraud charges — may not seem like ac­tual res­i­dents of this county about 50 miles north­west of Orlando.

Af­ter all, they can’t drive on lo­cal roads, take a walk in the park, check out books from any of the pub­lic li­braries or vote in lo­cal elec­tions while in­car­cer­ated at the largest fed­eral prison in the coun­try.

But ac­cord­ing to the Census Bureau, the 6,162 pris­on­ers at the Fed­eral Cor­rec­tional Com­plexCole­man will be counted as res­i­dents of Sumter County — along­side the tens of thou­sands of nearby re­tirees sun­ning them­selves by the pools at The Vil­lages — when the na­tion­wide count takes place this year.

Be­ing counted as Sumter res­i­dents means the pris­on­ers will play a role in how state law­mak­ers will re­draw the area’s leg­isla­tive and con­gres­sional districts based on the 2020 census.

But crit­ics say count­ing pris­on­ers this way presents a dis­torted pic­ture of a county’s pop­u­la­tion and can lead to state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment districts be­ing in­ac­cu­rately drawn.

“It can have a pretty big ef­fect” on small ru­ral coun­ties such as Sumter, said Aleks Ka­js­tura, le­gal di­rec­tor for the Prison Pol­icy Ini­tia­tive, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Northamp­ton, Mass., that re­searches mass crim­i­nal­iza­tion and its ef­fects on so­ci­ety.

The non­par­ti­san group calls the

way in­mates are counted “prison ger­ry­man­der­ing.”

The big­ger the cor­rec­tional fa­cil­ity, the more of an im­pact it has when state leg­is­la­tors be­gin carv­ing up districts, Ka­js­tura said. And large pris­ons are com­monly built in ru­ral ar­eas with few res­i­dents, she pointed out.

For ex­am­ple, in Wis­con­sin, there are five coun­ties and cities in ru­ral ar­eas where more than half of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion is in­car­cer­ated, lead­ing to more districts for the state’s lower house she said.

“We be­lieve that every­body should be counted by the census by their last home ad­dress,” she said.

In ad­di­tion to af­fect­ing re­dis­trict­ing, the prison pop­u­la­tion also boosts a county’s over­all pop­u­la­tion when it ap­plies for fed­eral grants.

Sumter’s to­tal in­mate pop­u­la­tion ac­counts for about 6.4% of the county’s es­ti­mated pop­u­la­tion of 128,754.

Be­sides the fed­eral pris­on­ers — in­clud­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can ac­tivist Leonard Peltier and for­mer fi­nancier Allen Stan­ford, both of whom are serv­ing life­long sen­tences — the pop­u­la­tion count also in­cludes 2,100 in­mates in­car­cer­ated in Sumter Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion, a state prison in Bush­nell.

Statewide, about half of 1% of Florida’s 21.2 mil­lion res­i­dents are in­mates, ac­cord­ing to census fig­ures.

In Sumter, the ra­tio of in­mates to the over­all pop­u­la­tion is de­clin­ing be­cause of growth in The Vil­lages. In 2011, more than 10% of the county’s “res­i­dents” were be­hind bars.

Frank Calas­cione, Sumter’s di­rec­tor of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, said the num­ber of fed­eral pris­on­ers ac­counts for a “very, very small per­cent­age” of the county’s over­all pop­u­la­tion and there­fore has lit­tle im­pact.

He also pointed out that Sumter County Com­mis­sion districts are drawn by ge­og­ra­phy, rather than pop­u­la­tion, and com­mis­sion­ers are elected coun­ty­wide.

“The growth rate of the pop­u­la­tion [of Sumter] from 2010 to 2018 was 37.8%, mainly driven by the ex­pan­sion of The Vil­lages re­tire­ment com­mu­nity,” Calas­cione said.

The ra­tio is mag­ni­fied in Union County, where the state’s Union Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion — home of Florida’s death row — is a ma­jor em­ployer.

About 4,875 pris­on­ers make up nearly a third of the county’s to­tal es­ti­mated pop­u­la­tion of nearly 15,500.

Union County Co­or­di­na­tor Jimmy Wil­liams, who over­sees the county’s dayto-day op­er­a­tions, said the large per­cent­age of in­mates be­ing fac­tored into the census pop­u­la­tion data can have a detri­men­tal ef­fect in lur­ing in new jobs to the North Florida county.

Union is ranked as one of the poor­est and least ed­u­cated coun­ties in the coun­try. The three main in­dus­tries in the county are tim­ber, land­scap­ing and cor­rec­tions.

“Sta­tis­ti­cally, it hurts us,” Wil­liams said about the census fac­tor­ing in in­mates into the over­all pop­u­la­tion. “And it’s be­cause of the in­mate pop­u­la­tion.”

That’s why Wil­liams and his staff are start­ing off 2020 putting to­gether an eco­nomic plan they hope will lure in in­dus­tries that of­fer high-wage jobs, such as in the so­lar in­dus­try. They hope to take ad­van­tage of neigh­bor­ing Columbia County’s rapid growth.

“We’re try­ing to get ahead of the game,” he said.

De­spite crit­i­cism over the sys­tem, state Sen. Den­nis Bax­ley, an Ocala Repub­li­can whose dis­trict in­cludes Sumter and much of Lake, said count­ing pris­on­ers as res­i­dents of where they are in­car­cer­ated, rather than their last home ad­dress, is the most log­i­cal and “just the sim­plest way.”

“I’m cer­tainly open to look­ing at a bet­ter way,” Bax­ley said. “But it might end up with some peo­ple be­ing missed…. The pre­dom­i­nant is­sue for me is that they are counted.”

He takes ex­cep­tion to crit­i­cism that count­ing pris­on­ers as res­i­dents amounts to ger­ry­man­der­ing.

“Ger­ry­man­der­ing is a lit­tle bit of a strong term and con­veys more of an in­tent to do some­thing bad,” he said. “There may be some un­to­ward ef­fects on some com­mu­ni­ties and that cer­tainly de­serves some anal­y­sis…. But you may wind up with some peo­ple not even be­ing counted. And that would con­cern me greatly.”

But those try­ing to change the sys­tem point to mod­est gains. Wash­ing­ton Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill in May to make his state the fifth to end the prac­tice.

In New Jersey, a bill that would do like­wise passed the state Se­nate, though it wasn’t taken up by the Gen­eral Assem­bly.

One of the bill’s spon­sors, Demo­cratic Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, said the leg­is­la­tion is im­por­tant to “en­sure the voices in our com­mu­ni­ties are not di­min­ished be­cause their res­i­dents are serv­ing time,” ac­cord­ing to an NBC News re­port.


File photo of a gur­ney like those used to carry out ex­e­cu­tions on Florida’s death row.


Ban­ners stand in front of the Fed­eral Cor­rec­tional Com­plex-Cole­man in Sumter County on Nov. 22.

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