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Raising the Bar

Why rural Pennsylvanians love having a prison next door

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Even as I was railing against HB 1318, labeled by some as the "Anti-Voting Rights Act," ["No Ballot Initiative"], the state Senate was amending it. A provision barring felons from voting until they completed their terms of parole was stricken, as were some provisions that seemed to place undue burdens on the poor, the elderly and racial minorities. All of this seems appropriate some 40-odd years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, though I still don't think most cons and ex-cons will vote.

It seems, however, that convicts don't have to vote to affect the political process. According to a recent report by the Prison Policy Institute, their mere existence skews the political system.

As the PPI reports in a survey titled "Importing Constituents," the U.S. Census Bureau counts convicts as residents of their cells, rather than of the places where they lived before they were spirited away. This bogus Census count is then used by the state Legislature when it draws legislative and congressional districts. This has the effect of transferring political power from urban areas (where most convicts come from) to the boonies, where most prisons are. Lest you think that this effect is negligible, consider that there are more than 55,000 convicts in state and federal prisons in Pennsylvania alone. That's only slightly smaller than the population of a state House district. There are two rural counties in PA whose civilian populations declined, Wyoming and Somerset, but which appeared to have grown in the 2000 census because of larger prison populations.

I've previously opined that prison is really a workfare program for the rural poor, who get paid to watch over the urban poor. Rural folk are getting a better deal than I believed. Not only are they getting the better salaries (about $40k a year plus benefits for a hack -- compared to 17 cents an hour for a con), they also get a larger voice in the various legislatures than they deserve.

With that comes a disproportionately large share of the government pie. Stealing convicts from urban census rolls enables rural districts with prisons to claim an undue share of government bucks. As a New York Times editorial put it in late December, "Since inmates are jobless, their presence also allows prison districts to lower their per capita incomes, unfairly increasing their share of federal funds earmarked for the poor."

I probably don't have to mention that the city's losses benefit an area where the indigenous population is generally hostile to everything about Pittsburgh (except the Steelers, of course). Or that these voters frequently elect officials who reflect this hostility. When the Department of Corrections closed the former Western Pen in Pittsburgh and moved all of the convicts to SCI-Fayette in some place called La Belle, for example, everybody knew that 400 or so good-paying jobs went out there too. But some political power went with them.

There was a time when I believed that, unless he owned the cheap motel closest to the prison visiting room, only a fool would want a prison in his backyard. The jobs pay all right, but they really suck, and the best ones don't go to locals: People with seniority from out of town get them instead. Worse, any way you slice it, if you have a prison in your town, you're living in a penal colony. The big shot in town is probably the warden.

As it turns out, I may have been wrong -- again. As in most things in life there are tradeoffs, and political clout is not to be dismissed lightly. So what if the view from your kitchen window is dominated by 50 acres surrounded by razor wire? A right-thinking representative will ensure that your deer rifle is safer, and that less money is going to go to fix some damned bridge in Pittsburgh.

If you are part of the prison economy, the legacy you leave your children will most likely be your handcuff tie-tack, but there is the security to consider. The fix is in, so long as you make sure to vote for somebody who likes to lock up people from the city.

Some people will do anything for money.

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