Census problem: Are Colorado prisoners rural residents or urban visitors?

The 2010 census gives states a new option for how to count their prison population, a move that could provide additional political leverage to urban areas -- which, in Colorado, means more power to the Front Range and less to places like Fremont, Logan and Crowley counties.

In the past, the U.S. Census Bureau tended to count people housed in "group quarters" (like felons) as residents of that area, even though some states don't consider a prison cell a residence. That gave some sparsely populated areas more legislative representation and political clout than they would have otherwise.

In Colorado, which has numerous state prisons and private hoosegows sited in far-flung corners of the state, that means places like Canon City (6,000 inmates in nine state prisons, plus thousands more in the four-prison federal complex), Ordway (3,000 inmates in two prisons) and Sterling (2,500 inmates) have had a notable boost in their census counts.

But the Bureau recently announced that it's going to release prison data earlier, allowing states more flexibility in how they decide to count their felons. The move is being hailed by inner-city advocacy groups, who argue their communities are being shortchanged in the count, which affects redistricting issues and federal aid allocation.

According to Colorado Department of Corrections data, nearly two-thirds of the state's 23,000 inmates hail from five urban counties -- Denver, Adams, Jefferson, Arapahoe and El Paso. (Throw Pueblo, Boulder and Fort Collins into the mix, and it's closer to 75 percent of the total population.) Counting them according to the place they got arrested could provide one less incentive for struggling rural communities to embrace the private prison industry while further tilting Colorado's urban-rural political battles in favor of the most populous counties.

But will it make the cities involved any more inclined to welcome "their" prisoners back when they're released? Don't count on it.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast