Under a 2019 state redistricting law inmates should be counted as residents of where they lived prior to incarceration, as opposed to where the prisons are. (Photo: Nevada Department of Corrections, Facebook)
One-third of state prison inmates have no last known residence on record, which puts the Nevada Department of Corrections in conflict with a 2019 state law requiring it to adjust population data based on that information.
According to the Nevada law, prison inmates should be reallocated in census data so they are counted as residents of the cities and counties where they lived prior to incarceration, as opposed to the jurisdiction they are currently incarcerated in. The law requires the Legislature to use this adjusted population data when redrawing its political district boundary lines, a process that is expected to occur in a special legislative session sometime next month.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Census Bureau began considering inmates to be residents of the locales where their prison cells are located. This has had an outsized impact in rural prison towns, which typically benefit from the boosted population when political districts are drawn every 10 years, but which don’t have to worry about election implications (since inmates cannot vote in most states).
It’s a process known as “prison gerrymandering.” At least 11 states have moved to address it by either reallocating or excluding inmates from redistricting data.
NDOC recorded 12,214 inmates living at its various facilities during the 2020 census, according to a presentation by legislative staff to lawmakers during an interim redistricting committee Wednesday.
Just over half — 51.5% or 6,275 people — were properly reallocated based on their previous Nevada residences.
But more than one-third — 35.4% of inmates — had no prior address on file with NDOC. Another 5.9% had in-state addresses that were not complete enough to be used.
An additional 7.3% listed addresses that were out of state and therefore could not be reallocated.
Asher Killian with the Legislative Counsel Bureau told lawmakers that the inmates who could not be reallocated based on their prior residence will remain counted within the populations of the jurisdictions where their prison facility is located. Killian added that most states with prison gerrymandering laws take a different approach.
“Nevada is one of the minority of states that does continue to count that person at the prison site rather than not counting them at all,” he said.
Alejandra Livingston, an NDOC economist, told lawmakers there were a variety of reasons why the data was incomplete, including file conversion issues and the fact residence information is self-reported.
“There are inmates that have language barriers, and inmates that have intellectual deficiencies too, or history of substance abuse,” she said. “We cannot always rely on them providing us with precise information.”
Livingston also said many people entered state prison facilities after months or even years in municipal jails.
“Most of these individuals don’t have the lifestyles that many of us have,” she told the legislators. “They are transient people. They don’t necessarily have a set address where they’ve lived.”
That testimony didn’t sit well with the ACLU of Nevada, whose policy director, Holly Welborn, called NDOC’s failure to reallocate almost half of the inmates in its care inexcusable and said organizations could have been called in to assist but weren’t.
Lawmakers on the interim redistricting committee were less pointed in their comments but expressed concern about the incomplete implementation of the law.
“(The bill) was passed in 2019 and here we are in 2021 with half of the people we aren’t able to identify,” said state Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Clark). “That’s problematic to me because I would like to see everyone counted.”
Livingston told the lawmakers NDOC is working on improving training for intake staff so they can better collect that information from arriving prisoners and working with its IT staff to improve the database where such information is kept.
Added Assemblywoman Britney Miller (D-Clark), who chairs the interim redistricting committee: “We would encourage you to continue to do that because really these concerns for inmates extend past the census and redistricting.”
Impact on census data
Even with only half of the state prison population being reallocated, the impact of the 2019 law is notable at the county level.
Pershing County, where Lovelock Correctional Facility is located, saw its population adjusted down by 9.7%.
White Pine County, where Ely State Prison is located, saw its population adjusted down by 4.9%.
State Sen. Pete Goicochea (R-Eureka) said he was concerned about a potential negative impact on rural counties that might use the population data to apply for federal funds. Goicochea’s district includes White Pine County.
“There are still some questions,” he said.
The impact of the prison population adjustments is less pronounced in urban areas. Clark County gained the most people — 1,178 of them — but that only represents a 0.05% population change since the county is so populous to begin with.
Nye County saw the biggest boost when it comes to percentages. It gained 120 residents, which represents a population change of only 0.23%.
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