Where People in Prison Come From: The Geography of Mass Incarceration in Pennsylvania



Prison Policy Initiative: Emily Widra and Benjamin Geffen - September 2022


One of the most important criminal legal system disparities in Pennsylvania has long been difficult to quantify: Which communities throughout the Commonwealth 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 never been available to document how many people from each community are imprisoned with any real precision.


But now, thanks to a redistricting reform that ensures incarcerated people are counted correctly in their home legislative districts, we can understand the geography of incarceration in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is one of over a dozen states that have ended prison gerrymandering (although Pennsylvania ended it only for the 2020 legislative redistricting process) 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 Pennsylvania’s are implemented, they bring along a convenient side effect: In order to correctly represent each community’s population counts, states must collect detailed statewide data on where imprisoned people call home, which is otherwise impossible to access.


Using these redistricting data, we find that in Pennsylvania, incarcerated people come from all over the Commonwealth, and unsurprisingly, the largest number of imprisoned people are from the state’s most populous city: Philadelphia. However, what may be surprising, is that a handful of less populous and more rural counties in western Pennsylvania — like Venango, Jefferson, and Warren counties — have some of the highest imprisonment rates per 100,000 residents, indicating that people all over Pennsylvania are affected by the Commonwealth’s reliance on mass incarceration.


To read the full article and access the report, click here.