High Country News
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High Country News

When ‘usual residence’ is a prison

Census method of counting prisoners distorts demographics.

If a demographer were to draw up a profile of eastern Colorado’s Crowley County using the most recent census data, it would appear to be far more diverse and densely populated than neighboring counties. About 6,000 people live in the 800-square-mile county’s four small towns, and about 47 percent of the population is either Latino, Black or Indigenous, considerably higher than the state as a whole.

The numbers are accurate, but they are also distorted by the fact that nearly half of the populace aren’t truly members of the community; they don’t eat at local restaurants, vote in local elections or send their children to school. That’s because at least 45% of the county’s residents are incarcerated, either in the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, a state prison, or the Crowley County Correctional Facility, which is operated by private contractor CoreCivic. Owing to the Census Bureau’s “usual residence” rule, however, they are counted as residents of Crowley County, rather than the places they lived prior to incarceration.

Crowley County is an extreme example of this phenomenon, but it’s far from unique. Across the Western United States, population numbers and demographic statistics are skewed in counties with large numbers of prisoners, giving rural counties outsized political power and creating a false picture of communities for policymakers.

An inmate reads in his cell at Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City, Colorado. Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

See just how distorted the census counts get here: https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.10/when-usual-residence-is-a-prison

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.

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