Parchman, of course.

Mississippians have moved out of the Delta for over half a century. The region known as “The Most Southern Place on Earth” has lost nearly half its population since its peak in 1940.

But data from the 2012 American Community Survey show that one part of the Delta still attracts vast numbers of new residents: the Mississippi State Penitentiary near Parchman in northern Sunflower County.

The Census Bureau adheres to the controversial practice of counting prisoners as residents of the place where they are held. More than 22,000 Mississippians are locked up — a population larger than over half of the state’s 82 counties. 

Because of this methodological quirk, more than one in five residents of Sunflower County’s northern Census tract have moved from a different county in Mississippi during the past year. Those gains come amidst Sunflower’s total population decline of 14 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The phenomenon extends to all large state institutions. Mississippi’s highest rate of new residents belongs to a tract of Rankin County that contains the Mississippi State Hospital, commonly known as “Whitfield.” Behind Whitfield are Mississippi’s three biggest universities, Parchman, and the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Greene County. Between 18 and 32 percent of these tracts’ residents had moved from another county in the year prior to the survey. Fewer than 4 percent of Mississippians moved within the state during that time.

Prison-and-college-led migration isn’t unique to Mississippi. Many of the South’s largest in-state magnets, such as Lauderdale County, Tennessee, and Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, are home to either correctional facilities or major universities.

These data support no profound conclusions, but they may offer a metric to evaluate the success of proposed prison and education reforms. If fewer Mississippians move to Parchman, and more move to college, then we’ll know that they’re working.

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