What communities do people in Pennsylvania state prisons come from? That's the question a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative and the Public Interest Law Center was able to answer more completely than ever before. Using census data on the home address of incarcerated people that was tracked for the first time thanks to the state’s decision to undo prison gerrymandering, researchers calculated the rates at which residents of Pennsylvania counties, cities and neighborhoods are incarcerated in state prisons. Their analysis consistently found that areas with high poverty rates—both urban and rural—have more of their residents locked up in state prisons. Black communities are also incarcerated at disproportionate rates.
Incarceration falls heavy on rural counties as big cities pursue reforms
The county with the most residents in state prisons relative to its population is not where you might expect. Venango County in rural Western Pennsylvania has a higher incarceration rate than even Philadelphia, with 452 per 100,000 residents behind bars. Philadelphia ranks second, but has far and away the greatest number of residents in state prison at over 7,000. Three rural counties in Western Pennsylvania were among the top five most-incarcerated counties, and all of them had poverty rates above the state average. The authors connect this finding with the impact of poverty and high rates of addiction in the northwestern region of the state.
The city of Chester has the highest incarceration rate for any Pennsylvania city (1,181 per 100,000), followed by Harrisburg (1,145 per 100,000). Their rates are nearly three times as high as the city of Philadelphia’s.
“As in Philadelphia, the disproportionate impact of the criminal legal system on communities of color is apparent in Chester, where the city population is predominantly Black (72%) (which is six times higher than the statewide average), and where Black people are disproportionately arrested (making up 79% of arrests by the Chester Police Department),” the report states.
Conversely, Pittsburgh, which has a greater proportion of residents who are white and affluent, has an incarceration rate less than one-fourth that of Chester. Pittsburgh-area policymakers have also done significant work reducing the over-use of incarceration over the last several years. Through its participation in the Safety and Justice Challenge, Allegheny County has reduced its jail population 37% percent since 2018. Philadelphia, too, has reduced its jail population 41% since 2016 through its participation in the program. These results show that cities like Chester could reduce the burden of incarceration on its residents with targeted reforms.
The researchers also found that these racial and socioeconomic disparities are reflected in incarceration rates between neighborhoods within cities. Poor, predominantly black neighborhoods which suffered the effects of historical redlining, like Nicetown in North Philadelphia, had the most incarcerated residents. Nicetown’s imprisonment rate of 942 per 100,000 dwarfs the affluent Rittenhouse Square area’s rate of 17 per 100,000.
It’s still an incomplete picture
The incarceration rates generated by this analysis only factor in people incarcerated in state prisons—they don’t count people in custody in federal prisons or county jails. Moreover, they don’t include everyone in those prisons. People serving life sentences or who had more than 10 years left on their sentence were excluded when Pennsylvania reallocated incarcerated people to their home legislative districts to address prison gerrymandering. Their home addresses were not reflected in the new census data. Incarceration rates across the board would be higher if all these groups were accounted for.