Prison Policy Initiative releases detailed data on the “geography of incarceration” in New York state, opening doors for future research

The new resource uses data generated by New York’s law ending prison gerrymandering.

February 19, 2020

A new project from the Prison Policy Initiative maps where people in New York state prisons come from, down to the neighborhood level — providing a groundbreaking tool for studying how incarceration relates to community well-being.

The project, Mapping Disadvantage: The Geography of Incarceration in New York, provides anonymized residence data for everyone in New York state prisons at the time of the 2010 Census. Readers can download the data at several geographic levels, including counties, cities, and legislative districts.

“If you want to study how mass incarceration has impacted specific communities in New York, or how incarceration tracks with other indicators of community health, we’ve just published the geographic data you need to do that,” said Prison Policy Initiative Research Director Wendy Sawyer.

In a short report, produced in collaboration with VOCAL-NY, the Prison Policy Initiative provides examples of what can be done with the new dataset. The report shows that:

  • In New York City neighborhoods with high rates of asthma among children, incarceration rates are also significantly higher.
  • In city school districts, 5th grade math scores are very strongly correlated with neighborhood incarceration rates.
  • Across the state of New York, every 1% increase in a particular Census tract’s unemployment rate is correlated with an uptick in the incarceration rate.

A landmark 2010 law made this mapping project possible. In 2010, New York passed a bill ensuring that people in prison would be counted as residents of their hometowns at redistricting time. This reform ended the electoral distortion known as “prison gerrymandering,” which had given extra political influence to the legislative districts that contained large prisons. The law required the state prison system to share its own records of where incarcerated people actually resided with redistricting officials. Using these records, redistricting officials produced a corrected dataset that they used to draw new district lines, and the Prison Policy Initiative repurposed this dataset for its report.

For the 2020 round of redistricting a total of seven states — California, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Washington — have passed legislation to end prison gerrymandering and nine additional states — Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin — have legislation pending.

“These states are passing laws to end prison gerrymandering because they believe that everyone should have the same access to political power, regardless of whether they live next to a large prison. But these laws also have a secondary positive impact: they can make a deeper understanding of our criminal justice system possible,” said Executive Director Peter Wagner.

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