America’s prison population could play an important role in the country’s redistricting battles, and help reshape America’s electoral map.

A new federal policy will change the way in which prisoners are counted in the 2010 Census. Census officials plan to make prisoner data available earlier than in past years. Prisoners were always counted in the national tally, but the federal government provided prisoner data to states after they completed their redistricting. Now, states will have access to that information prior to redistricting.

This move is important because now, the states will now have the option of counting prisoners based on their home districts—typically urban areas—rather than the rural districts where many of them are imprisoned. Districts with prisons have received more federal dollars because they were able to use their inmate headcount to boost their population. Meanwhile, urban areas have experienced a drop in federal funds, and a loss of representation in Congress, because their populations have declined. After all, the cities have involuntarily donated many of their young men, and increasingly women, to fill up these rural penitentiaries.

And we cannot escape a discussion of the racial dynamics involved in the counting of prisoners. Inmates throughout the United States are disproportionately of color. Nearly two-thirds of America’s prisoners are black and Latino. At the same time, the prisons that house these inmates are in predominantly white neighborhoods. With globalization, outsourcing and the shipping of jobs overseas, the prison town has replaced the factory town in depressed, rural white areas. The prison boom has benefited them. But for the inner cities, there is merely more despair.

Some have compared this dynamic to the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, which allowed Southern states to count three-fifths of their slave population, who could not vote, for the purposes of tax distribution and Congressional representation. The compromise artificially inflated the influence of the South, on the backs of African-Americans who were regarded as less than human. Similarly, today the warm bodies of black and brown prisoners, who cannot vote, are counted for the benefit of the white communities that imprison them.

In New York, seven state senate districts meet minimum population requirements solely because they count incarcerated people in their population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. With 44,000 mostly black and Latino New York City residents counted as residents of upstate prisons, these small towns are receiving undeserved political clout. And according to a recent report, 1,912 of the 6,980 residents in Brown County, Illinois, were inmates in 2000. The county’s black population was 1,265, fully one-fifth of the total population. However, 1,260 of them—99.6 percent of the county’s African-Americans— were prisoners.

But the new census policy is welcome news for cities that are running out of people and running out of money. The recession is crippling municipal and state budgets alike. But so, too, is unchecked prison growth. One should not underestimate the crippling effects of the prison spending boom on urban life, in the nation that locks up more people than any other. Families are separated not only by prison bars, but often by hundreds of miles. Poor families of the incarcerated often cannot go upstate to visit their loved ones on lockdown, or can do so only through great personal and economic sacrifice. In the case of rehabilitated and nonviolent offenders who don’t belong behind bars, their communities are suffering from their absence. They could be raising their families, engaged in occupations, and contributing to the neighborhood as leaders and productive members of society.

Cities are the lifeblood of America, as centers of business, media, culture, learning and the arts. But they have been losing out in recent years, as rural communities have exploited these ghost constituents of color that live behind bars. The new census rules will help urban areas flourish by allowing states to count prisoners in their home districts. A number of states have introduced similar census reform legislation. This is a good start. The next step is to bring some of these prisoners home.