Incarceration rates vary greatly across Virginia but tend to be higher in Southside and Southwest Virginia. In some communities, more than 1.5% of residents are currently being held in state prisons. (Graphic: Connor Scribner/VPM News)
A new report shows exactly where people in Virginia prisons and jails come from. The data was only recently made available to the public and shows many of the state’s smallest communities have lost the largest portions of their population to incarceration.
New Virginia Majority and Prison Policy Initiative, organizations that advocate for decreasing incarceration, were able to access and analyze the data because of a recent law passed in Virginia that ended “prison gerrymandering.”
Former Gov. Ralph Northam signed Senate Bill 717 into law in 2020, ensuring people in state prisons would be counted as residents at their home addresses, rather than in the community where the prison or jail is located.
The report shows Buchanan, Brunswick, Lee and Dickinson counties, some of the least populous areas in Virginia, have among the highest incarceration rates, more than 1,100 people per 100,000 residents.
Several small cities in the state also have high rates of incarceration, including Petersburg, Franklin and Danville — all of which have more than 1,500 residents per 100,000 in state prisons.
Arlington County has the lowest prison incarceration rate: 70 people in state prison per 100,000 residents.
“I think there's often this notion that mass incarceration is something that really hurts cities,” said Mike Wessler, of Prison Policy Initiative. “And while it is true that cities like Norfolk and Richmond send a lot of people to prison — and those communities are incredibly harmed by mass incarceration — it's a lot of the smaller communities that end up sending larger portion[s] of their population per capita to prison. Kind of losing more people, more of a percentage of the fabric of their communities to prison.”
Small cities and counties top the list of Virginia localities with the highest incarceration rates
He said that’s likely due to a combination of factors. People who are poor are more likely to be incarcerated, and the same is true for people of color, as well as people who have mental health and substance use disorders.
“One of the things that this data is really helpful in though … it gives such a crystal-clear picture of where people come from. People can really dive in and try to understand what's going on in those communities and develop ways to kind of break this cycle of incarceration,” he said.
There are also dramatic differences in incarceration rates within communities.
The report provides neighborhood-specific data for Richmond, for example, which shows more than half of the people in prison or jail who are from the capital city come from 22 of Richmond’s more than 140 neighborhoods. And those neighborhoods with higher incarceration rates are, in many cases, the same neighborhoods that were subject to redlining during the early 20th century.
“Even if you get more granular, it shows that places, communities and neighborhoods that have been historically underinvested in, the data made clear connections to the impact it has on incarceration,” said New Virginia Majority Policy Director Kenneth Gilliam.
He said this is a call to action for local and state lawmakers to work together to invest more in those communities.
Incarceration is concentrated among a small number of Richmond neighborhoods