Politics don’t stop at the prison gate

Consider the case of our prisoners, most of whom are not allowed to vote because of the crimes they have committed. Let’s remember that in upstate New York we have what might be called the “prison industrial complex.” Every time a governor tries to close some underpopulated prisons the people from those communities band together and get their legislators to protest. God forbid that we close prisons that we don’t need and save some of the very money that everyone says we need to save. No, better that we ask our children to go to overpopulated classrooms where they won’t be able to learn because we have to save money. Keeping unneeded prisons open is just politics as usual.

So, with some regularity the whole thing replays itself like an old Law and Order that you’ve seen three times. We put or prisons in upstate New York, often near the Canadian border. That doesn’t make a lot of sense because most of our prisoners come from New York City and its environs.

If you haven’t heard, there is a high correlation between poverty and crime. Just imagine if you are the wife or child of a prisoner. In order to see your loved one you have to get on an expensive bus and ride for what seems like an eternity. That isn’t right, but it certainly hasn’t stopped some politicians from tony Ossining, just a bit up the Hudson River, from arguing that the famous “Sing Sing,” the original “up the river” joint should be closed. I assume that is to make way for more condominiums and developments with a river view. The last thing we want those poor families who can’t afford the bus to the Canadian border or the hours off from their jobs to get any relief.

It doesn’t stop there of course. The upstate Republicans sure as hell don’t want the prison industry to close up but they also don’t want the prisoners who are there to count as residents of their hometowns from whence they were shipped. The problem for the upstate Republicans is that when the census is taken there just aren’t enough bodies to justify the size of their Assembly, Senate and congressional districts. If the prisoners are counted they help make the case for keeping their districts whole. On the other hand, if the prisoners are counted from their downstate homes, it just helps the downstate Democrats when the redistricting takes place. Remember that the rule is “one person, one vote.” When, by mistake, the Senate Democrats won their house before they fouled it up and lost to the Republicans, they changed the law so that the prisoners were counted from their downstate homes. This infuriated the Republicans and they have tried to change the law back so that the prisoners were counted from their upstate jail cells. Of course, Governor Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Silver are not going to allow that to happen. They are Democrats. So, to fix it their way, the Republicans may rely on the courts to make it right, but I doubt that will work because of the present composition of the state’s appeals courts.

Of course, it used to be that many of these same Republicans used to argue that students had to be counted from their homes, not from their colleges. That’s because at least some of the kids voted and that couldn’t be countenanced. In this Democracy the last thing we want are Democratic kids voting in upstate districts. Doesn’t matter, the kids got the right to vote from their dorms and in some cases have made a real difference. In most cases it didn’t because most kids do not vote. So, in the end it will stay the way it is now. The prisoners will count from whence they came. It will help the Democrats and hurt the Republicans. My bet is that things are pretty much the way they should be.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/25/11

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