Skip navigation

Southwest Virginia Leads with State’s Highest Incarceration Rates


The high impact on rural areas is due to prescription drug epidemic, officials say.

Many of the state’s least populous counties, including Buchanan, Brunswick, Lee and Dickenson, have among the highest incarceration rates in the commonwealth, according to a new study using statewide data published in July. 

While some of the state’s largest cities, such as Norfolk and Richmond, are sending the highest numbers of people to prison, it is smaller communities, many of which are located in Southwest Virginia and Southside, that are missing a larger share of their population to incarceration. In total, among Virginia’s 95 counties and 38 cities, 26 are missing at least 1% of their population due to being incarcerated, the survey found. 

“The myth that mass incarceration is just a problem that harms big cities has been clearly busted by all the data that we have been looking at. It’s an issue that unites urban and rural areas, as they both are suffering from this problem of mass incarceration,” said Mike Wessler, the communications director for the nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy organization working to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization. The group conducted the study in collaboration with New Virginia Majority, a Richmond-based nonprofit advocating for social justice causes.

Although the data doesn’t give a clear picture of exactly what the causes are, the drivers of incarceration have long been identified and are pretty universal throughout the country, Wessler said. “They tend to be mental health, related to substance abuse disorder, poverty, housing insecurity and patterns of over-policing in certain areas. For example, we know that police are more likely to arrest, stop and detain people of color,” he said. 

The new data shows that the counties with the highest state prison and local jail incarceration rates are Buchanan (1,246 per 100,000 residents), Brunswick (1,167), Lee (1,155), Dickenson (1,132) and Tazewell (1,105). In each of these counties, at least 1% of residents are currently behind bars. The minority population in all the Southwest counties is smaller than the state average. 

For comparison, with just 70 people per 100,000 residents, Arlington County has the lowest prison incarceration rate. And Fairfax, the state’s most populous county, has 80. The statewide average is 485.

The data also shows that some of Virginia’s smaller cities with fewer than 100,000 residents have some of the highest incarceration rates. With a population of less than 14,000, Martinsville, for example, has the highest incarceration rate in the state with 1,787 people in prison per 100,000 city residents – a total of 243 city residents that are currently behind bars. Roanoke – Virginia’s 18th largest locality by population – has 1,045 of the city’s slightly more than 100,000 residents behind bars (an incarceration rate of 1,038). 

Compare this with the two most populous cities that incarcerate less people per capita. Virginia Beach, with a population of almost 460,000 according to the 2020 census, has 1,823 incarcerated residents (396 per 100,000 residents). Chesapeake, a city of close to 250,000, has 1,516 incarcerated residents, for an incarceration rate of 611 per 100,000. 

Overall, the 10 cities with the highest incarceration rates are home to less than 3% of the statewide population, but are home to more than 6% of incarcerated Virginians. 

“I think that often in public discourse, the issue of mass incarceration is usually just framed as an issue that impacts big cities and urban centers. But the report makes clear that this is an issue that impacts every county, every city and every locality across the state,” said Kenneth Gilliam, policy director with Virginia New Majority. “And when you think about the share of the total population of the somewhat smaller cities and counties as a shared population, they are losing bigger parts of their population to incarceration.”

Both Gilliam and Wessler said that their study was the first to provide an accurate picture of mass incarceration in Virginia because it was the first done after Virginia stopped counting incarcerated people as residents of their prisons or jails, instead counting them as residents of their home communities.

This means that until recently, those people were counted during each census where they are incarcerated — skewing population data, which affects how voting districts are drawn. Also in Virginia, incarcerated people lose their constitutional right to vote while they are serving their sentences. 

Following the 2020 legislative session, the commonwealth joined a growing number of states to end the so-called prison gerrymandering. Last year’s statewide elections were supposed to be the first to be held using adjusted population data for redistricting, but because of a delay caused by the pandemic, the 2020 census data used wasn’t available in time to draw new maps by election day. 

Wessler said that the report was possible only because Virginia has addressed the issue of prison gerrymandering. “We managed to take the data that the state produced to do their reallocation and their redistricting, then we compared it to the raw census data to figure out what the difference was, where people were actually reallocated to and where they came from,” he said. 

Before the new data was available, one could only have a limited understanding of where incarcerated people were from. “You could look at data from courts, at arrest records, you could see some patterns, but there were a lot of gaps in what you could draw from that,” Wessler said. 

The new study provides “the most crystal-clear picture ever possible,” Wessler added. “The data allows folks to really understand in many different ways what’s happening in their communities and hopefully develop solutions and interventions to break that cycle of mass incarceration.”

Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, said that while he found the new study interesting, he was not surprised that high incarceration rates are similar between some urban and rural areas. “I believe this can be directly attributed to the economic condition in Virginia’s most distressed localities,” he said in an email. 

Continue Reading

Read More