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January 25, 2023

"Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by Emily Widra. Here is how the data-heavy report gets started:

One of the most important criminal legal system disparities in the United States has long been difficult to decipher: Which communities and neighborhoods throughout the state do incarcerated people come from?  Anyone who lives in or works within heavily policed and incarcerated communities intuitively knows that certain neighborhoods disproportionately experience incarceration.  But data have rarely been available to quantify how many people from each community are imprisoned with any real precision.

But now, thanks to redistricting reforms that ensure incarcerated people are counted correctly in the legislative districts they come from, we can understand the geography of incarceration in twelve states with up-to-date data. These twelve states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington — are among the states that have ended prison gerrymandering, and now count incarcerated people where they legally reside — at their home address — rather than in remote prison cells.  This type of reform, as we often discuss, is crucial for ending the siphoning of political power from disproportionately Black and Latino communities to pad out the mostly rural, predominantly white regions where prisons are located.  And when reforms like these are implemented, they bring along a convenient side effect: In order to correctly represent each community’s population counts, states must collect detailed state-wide data on where imprisoned people call home, which is otherwise impossible to access.

These data also allow us to better understand how incarceration rates correlate with other community problems related to poverty, employment, education, and health.  While the data is not comparable between states, it does show us meaningful patterns in incarceration and researchers, scholars, advocates, and politicians can use the data in this report to advocate for programs and services housed outside the criminal legal system in the communities that need them most.

January 25, 2023 at 08:26 PM | Permalink


Any article on incarceration that does not take into account that incarcerating criminals allows the law-abiding to be safer is not worth reading . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Jan 26, 2023 9:21:22 AM

but hey, who's up for some sentencing bonuses:


If prisoners are past their release dates, doesn't that mean that they get to insult guards with impunity, that the PLRA doesn't apply to them and have enhanced rights to self-defense . . . . would they have the right to use violence to escape?

Posted by: federalist | Jan 26, 2023 9:45:17 AM

If LA is unwilling or unable to compensate the illegally incarcerated, perhaps they should get "prison credits" that they then can market to wealthy defendants eager to pay their way out of on-going incarceration. A kind of "cap and trade" system for incapacitation to try to get at least those who've served months of extra (illegal) time some payback.

I am joking, of course, but it will be interested to see if the over-incarceration get any recompense.

Posted by: Doug B | Jan 26, 2023 10:18:03 AM

We have known where the incarcerated one from forever, right down to the neighborhoods.


Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jan 26, 2023 2:47:35 PM

Briefly read the report, and as a long-time attorney, there is nothing in the reports that is surprising.

We all know that certain areas have a high prosecution rate. Whether the cause of that is poverty leading to a high crime rate or police focusing their resources on minority neighborhoods depends on your point of view. We also know that rural areas tend to be somewhat more likely (but not as much as many people think) to impose higher penalties or revoke probation sooner. So the report noting high total numbers from minority neighborhoods in urban centers but a high per capita rate from rural counties is simply confirming what most criminal law practitioners know anecdotally.

Posted by: tmm | Jan 27, 2023 10:45:12 AM

It is funny, Doug, that you don't grapple with the implications of what someone who is incarcerated can do. Would they have a First Amendment right to disrespect guards, and would the prison be liable for retaliation if there were consequences to that?

Posted by: federalist | Jan 27, 2023 12:00:23 PM

Federalist: I know many lawyers and professors who have spent their professional lives litigating and/or writing about prisoner rights. But this is not an area I have studied thoroughly, nor have I taught classes or litigated on this exact topic.

Have you seen this resource: https://incarcerationlaw.com/? It might explore directly or via links to other resources the issues you find of interest.

If those resources do not “grapple” to your satisfaction with your hypos, l can recommend other sources authored by those with more expertise than me.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 27, 2023 2:48:22 PM


No, there is no 1A protection for disrespecting guards.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jan 27, 2023 5:40:09 PM

There is, tarls, if you're in prison past your release date. How can there not be?

Posted by: federalist | Jan 27, 2023 6:05:54 PM

Doug, the answer to this hypo doesn't depend on detailed knowledge---what possible justification can there be for curtailing the rights of those who are held in prison past their release date. In other words, does the 1A imply that those rights can be taken away merely by holding someone past his or her release date?

Posted by: federalist | Jan 27, 2023 6:08:07 PM

federalist: I am not sure I understand your hypo or the legal issues you are eager to engage. For starters, I am not sure a non-prisoner has any right to "insult guards with impunity." If I was visiting a prisoner, even one I thought had been held past their sentence, why should I be able to "insult guards with impunity" and claim First Amendment protection? I am not a 1A expert, but I know Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942), says there is no 1A protection for "insulting or 'fighting' words -- those which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." So it is not clear to me anyone ever has a 1A right to "insult guards with impunity."

Next, it seems you are intimating that some prisoners -- seemingly "those held in prison past their release date" -- should get to exercise many rights that other prisoners do not in interactions with guards. But how are guards supposed to know which prisoners have "more insult rights" than others? Do you expect guards and other prison officials to have a handy list of which prisoners can exercise more/fewer rights? And can an orderly prison be run when certain prisoners have a lot more rights than others? And who makes the determination; if a prisoner claims to be held past release date, does a guard have to respect that claim in every case?

Of course, unlawful imprisonment violates many constitutional rights. But I am struggling to fully unpack how to build a case that anyone, let alone a prisoner, has a constitutional right "to insult guards with impunity." What am I missing?

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 27, 2023 8:17:31 PM

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