Courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.

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. 

Mike Wessler. Courtesy of Prison Policy Initiative

“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. 

Kenneth Gilliam. Courtesy of New Virginia Majority.

“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

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. 

With 941 residents that are currently incarcerated, Morefield’s recently redrawn district, which has a population of about 87,000, ranks seventh among the 100 House of Delegates districts. The incarceration rate in his district is 1,091 per 100,000. 

Morefield said that he became aware of several similarities between rural and urban areas a few years ago when he was working on legislation that would attract companies to economically distressed localities. 

“I was surprised to learn that cities like Petersburg and some localities in Southwest Virginia have more in common than most would think. They share similar population rate loss, poverty rates, and unemployment rates,” Morefield said, adding that he believes that incarceration rates will continue to rise and will only fall if the economic situation improves in those localities. “Economic development must continue to be a priority in economically distressed localities or the financial burden on the commonwealth will continue to grow significantly,” he said. 

Anthony West, the chief operations officer of Virginia CARES, a statewide network of community action agencies formed to address the successful reentry and de-institutionalization of felons in the commonwealth, said that besides economic despair, the opioid epidemic and the usage of drugs in Southwest and Southside Virginia are huge drivers of mass incarceration. “I also think that there is a lack of educational, employment and housing opportunities, and I think that there needs to be more funding directed to servicing these areas,” West said. 

In Southwest, Virginia CARES partners with People Inc. of Virginia, an Abingdon-based civic group that has been active since 1964 to provide reentry services to the populace. “When a person is released, they have the option of enrolling in the Virginia CARES program at People Inc. Our staff is trained to assist returning citizens with whatever their needs are when released,” West said.  

While these community action agencies are doing “a heck of a job” with their limited resources, West said that with additional funding, much more would get done. “Virginia CARES is always looking for more resources and partnerships to provide our services. We know reentry and what it takes for a returning citizen to be successful, we just need a little more in terms of funding to make it all a ‘sure’ reality,” he said.

State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County.

West has an unlikely supporter in state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, whose redrawn Senate district ranks 10th out of 40 with an incarceration rate of 731, or 1,603 residents of the district’s population of roughly 200,000. 

“It may sound strange coming from a Republican, but I would like for us to invest in work programs that if you have somebody who has a drug offense, but they don’t have violent record, they will be able to reenter the workforce, maybe with an ankle monitor, and become a productive member of society,” Hackworth said in an interview earlier this week. 

As an example of such a program already in place, Hackworth cited Virginia’s drug treatment courts, which are specialized court dockets within the existing structure of the state’s court system that offer judicial monitoring of intensive treatment and strict supervision of addicts in drug and drug-related cases. State law requires that local officials must complete a recognized planning process before establishing a drug treatment court program.

But Hackworth is willing to take it a step further and relocate former inmates where they can get a fresh start. “I feel like the only way to make this work is to change the environment, because it seems like a lot of people just don’t seem like they can crawl out of the hole,” he said. “Maybe we can give them housing or a handout and have the government step in for a limited time. We spend all kinds of money on prisons, why not take some of that and help relocate people so they don’t fall back into their old habits?”

As a businessman from Richlands, Hackworth said that he has hired people from the drug court program. “I told them that when they come to work for me, they have a clean slate,” he said. “If we can get employers and businesses, faith-based and civic organizations to step up and play a bigger role, maybe we can stop our prisons from being overcrowded.”

One example is Buchanan County, which launched its drug courts program 12 years ago during the opioid and methamphetamine epidemics. But the arrival of fentanyl once again forced the county to adjust, said Commonwealth’s Attorney Gerald Arrington. 

“Our mountainous area has not been a place where cartels and gangs have looked to have a drug trade, and we were protected by our rural geography for a long time. But when unscrupulous doctors and big pharma became our drug dealers, that gave us a problem that we never had to deal with,” Arrington said.

Despite the increase in drug related offenses, the county has worked to separate violent criminals and drug smugglers from addicts who mostly commit property crimes or are charged with possession. Four years ago, Buchanan created a community service program in which convicted offenders are given the opportunity to receive an equivalent sentence through working at different government locations in the county, allowing them to maintain employment and be home with their families.

“We are always looking for ways to divert as many of the deserving individuals as we can,” Arrington said. “I don’t think we will ever incarcerate our way out of the drug problem, but there also has to be a punishment for each crime, and we try to strike a balance between all of that by separating out offenders of violent crime and significant drug distribution.”

In neighboring Dickenson County, the local prosecutor said that coal mining and the accompanying service industries are “dangerous and labor intensive,” resulting in injuries and disabilities that often lead to prescription drug addiction. “I believe the opioid epidemic over the last decade disproportionately affected our county and has had a cyclical effect going forward as other drugs, namely meth, have become prevalent,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Newberry.

But while Dickenson County also has what Newberry called “a very active drug court and a community work program” to which offenders are often sentenced, he added that he believes that county residents view criminal activity as “a more pressing concern than incarcerating those engaged in the same” – especially in light of the alternatives to incarceration available to qualifying individuals. 

The representatives of the two nonprofits that conducted the study said that they hope that their analysis will help local law enforcement better understand the needs of their community. 

“One of the things we have seen in other states when local county attorneys and prosecutors have accessed this data is that it enables them to do a little self-reflection on how they are handling people who are arrested and facing charges,” said Wessler, the Prison Policy Initiative spokesman.

The intent of the report is not to highlight the most dangerous cities or localities across the state, added Gilliam, the policy directior with New Virginia Majority. “I think this is an opportunity for local and state lawmakers alike to really think about what role we can collectively play to improve our state and to make sure that no matter where we live, people have the resources they need, and that localities can change their criminal justice system at every entry point, from the initial hearing to people being released back into their communities,” Gilliam said.

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.