County omits prison count

Published 1:05 pm Monday, August 30, 2010

The 2010 U.S. Census will determine more than just how many people live in a given regional area. Those numbers are also used when counties across the state of Alabama determine where district lines are drawn for government representation.

Escambia County makes determinations on those district lines based on actual residential population, unlike other counties that may use prison population as part of district residents.

Escambia County Administrator Tony Sanks said the population of prisons in the county is excluded when district lines are determined.

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“The district lines in the county were redrawn in 2001 following the last Census,” Sanks said. “The prison count was not included when a determination was made on the number of residents living in a particular area were considered.”

Sanks said the reason for that is simple — prisons aren’t served by the county.

“We don’t serve the prison systems in any way so they simply are not included as constituents in a district,” Sanks said. “They maintain their own roads and take care of their own services. Since we don’t serve them, we don’t count them as part of a district.”

Sanks said districts are divided based on total residential population in a given area.

“We do our best to make sure that each district represented by a county commissioner is balanced,” Sanks said. “The geographical layout of the county makes that difficult sometimes, but ideally we have only about a 5 percent variance in population count from one district to another.”

A national Web site, Prisoners of the Census, said some districts are given more power than others since prison population is taken into account when drawing up district lines for governmental purposes.

“The prison-based gerrymandering violates the constitutional principle of ‘One Person, One Vote,’” the Web site said. “The Supreme Court requires districts to be based on equal population in order to give each resident the same access to government. But a longstanding flaw in the Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, even though they can’t vote and aren’t a part of the surrounding community.”

The Web site did credit Escambia County with making a conscious decision to discount those prison population numbers in order to keep districting more balanced.

“Escambia County rejects the Census Bureau’s prison count when drawing county commission districts,” the Web site stated. “Otherwise the people who live near the prison would have 10 percent more political influence than residents of other county districts. Substantial prison-based gerrymandering problems exist in Bibb, Coosa and Talladega counties. In Bibb County, for example, District 5 is 22 percent incarcerated, giving some residents more influence than others. More research needs to be done, especially in the counties of Bullock, Barbour and Limestone. (These communities contain large prisons relative to their actual population.) Unless the prison populations were removed from the redistricting base after the last Census, these communities have one or more districts that are significantly padded with non-resident prison populations.”

Final tallies in the 2010 U.S. Census have not been released and Sanks said no discussion has been made by the Escambia County Commission on redistricting following the count.

Sanks said specific guidelines must be followed when making any considerations in re-drawing district lines in any area.

“There are certain guidelines that are required when considering prison population in any redistricting situation,” Sanks said. “There are two prisons in our county, Holman and Fountain. We must either use the count from both prisons or from neither prison. In the past, prison population counts have not been used from either facility.”

Sanks said commissioners have not discussed any redistricting possibilities and will not make any determinations on that process until 2010 U.S. Census reports are completed.