NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Prisoners Spell Dollars for Communities

August 9, 2001

Some localities have found a unique way to obtain federal grants: annex or attract prisons and their inmates.

Most federal formula-grant programs for such things as road-building, job-training and community development are based at least partially on census numbers -- and prisoners are counted just like everyone else. Some states -- such as Arizona, Illinois and Wyoming -- also use census statistics to parcel out state tax revenues and other funds. Never mind the fact that the incarcerated get little benefit from the roads, parks and services the grants pay for.

And the extra cash can amount to considerable sums.

  • Florence, Ariz., for example, has a free population of 5,224 and an additional 11,830 who are locked up -- which means that for every dollar in the town's budget generated by local taxes and fees, an additional $1.76 comes from state and federal allocations based strictly on the prisoners in its population.
  • Calipatria, Calif., is making street improvements with the extra state funds it collects because of the 4,095 inmates included in its population of 7,289.
  • Ionia, Mich., total population 10,569, is using cash generated by its 4,401 inmates to install laptop computers in town vehicles and remake a National Guard armory into a community center.

Also, since prisoners have little or no income, they depress per capita wages. This makes prison-hosting towns eligible for additional cash from federal and state anti-poverty programs.

There are other unintended consequences. Heavily minority inner cities lose government funds when their residents are transferred to rural communities and locked up.

Furthermore, inmates are counted for legislative apportionment and redistricting -- even though they can't vote. So in states such as New York, the prison boom has helped to shift political muscle from minority-dominated inner-cities to rural areas dominated by whites.

Source: Nicholas Kulish, "Since Census Counts Convicts, Some Towns Can't Get Enough," Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2001.

For text (WSJ subscribers)


Browse more articles on Government Issues