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Editorial: New study unveils the effects of mass incarceration in Virginia

A little-heralded Virginia legislative reform has yielded insights into which of the commonwealth’s communities endure the most far-reaching effects of mass incarceration — a term that serves as shorthand for the United States’ propensity to put people in prison rather than address underlying social issues that set people on the path to a life behind bars. The U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, eclipsing even China, and when comparing national incarceration rates — the number of incarcerated residents per 100,000 population — the U.S.A. is also No. 1.

A new study released by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonpartisan nonprofit, matches Virginia’s prison inmates with the localities they came from, demonstrating a capacity to analyze which cities, towns, and counties have disproportionate amounts of their population locked up in correctional facilities. The data can even highlight differences between neighborhoods.

The study, a collaboration with advocacy group New Virginia Majority, provides reinforcement for issues already grimly familiar.

This report published July 14 shows that Norfolk and Richmond — though they are not the most populous places in the commonwealth — can claim the dubious distinction of having the highest number of people incarcerated in either jails or prisons. When instead considering the incarceration rate, the city with the highest rate in the state proves to be Martinsville.

“Mass incarceration harms every community in the state,” said Prison Policy Initiative Communications Director Mike Wessler, but “those harms aren’t spread consistently across the state. There are some communities — both big like Richmond and Norfolk, and small, like Martinsville — that have particularly high incarceration rates. These communities also tend to have higher portions of Black residents and lower incomes.” Roanoke, the 18th largest locality in the commonwealth by population, turns out to be the ninth largest source of Virginia inmates. The Star City also turns out to have the 23rd highest incarceration rate, which is nothing to celebrate.

Though the report does not analyze Roanoke in depth, the data shows that the Roanoke neighborhoods most affected by mass incarceration mostly correspond with those labeled “hazardous” in an historic redlining map. The racist process of redlining — an early 20th century practice by the federal government of rating the “risk” of urban real estate investments — consistently labeled districts where African Americans and European immigrants lived as risky investments, causing private and federal lenders to avoid providing loans in those communities, instead funneling their money toward newer white neighborhoods.

Maps indicating poverty levels in Roanoke and, recently and tragically as gun violence has increased, maps tabulating where the most shooting incidents have occurred in the city, also roughly correlate with that redlining map and this new mass incarceration data, underscoring the historic roots of these systemic problems.

“We think the real power in this data is the granularity,” said Wessler. “It allows you to see patterns down to the census tract and neighborhood level. This is important because even within communities the disparities run deep.”

‘Prison gerrymandering’

The story of how acquisition of this data became possible involves quite the callback.

In these pages, 10½ years ago, we called for the General Assembly to pass a bill that would change how prisoners were counted in official census tallies.

As throughout most of the nation, “prison gerrymandering” was standard practice in Virginia. This involved counting prisoners as residents in the communities where they were incarcerated when it came time to draw electoral maps. Even though prisoners don’t vote, their numbers were used in determining the size of the voting district where they were being held, thus ensuring those districts were drawn larger than they should have been. Conversely, the districts where the inmates came from were undercounted. The bill The Roanoke Times supported at the time took an incremental step toward undoing this process. We wrote, “Ideally, the General Assembly would simply allow all localities not to count prisoners in their local districts.” The bill proposed at the time “does not go that far, but it would move the commonwealth in the right direction.”

Supported by Republicans and endorsed by the NAACP, that bill in fact became law, passing both houses unanimously and receiving the blessing of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s pen.

The right direction we hoped for in this space came about in 2020, when Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation introduced by Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, that made it so people in prisons and jails who are Virginia residents would be counted as part of their hometown population for purposes of redistricting.

The data compiled by the state for that purpose gave rise to this illuminating new study from the Prison Population Initiative.

“The data itself is a tool for state and local policymakers, advocates, law enforcement and service providers to examine ways they can do their jobs better,” said Wessler. “Can they better target reentry services for people leaving prison and jail? Can they make different investments to avoid law enforcement involvement in the first place? Can they examine patterns of policing and prosecution that are having disproportionate impacts on these high-incarceration communities?”

Wessler noted that it’s not possible to create a national database of this kind because the U.S. Census Bureau continues to count prisoners in the location where they are being held. Virginia, ahead of the curve, is only the 9th state to end “prison gerrymandering.” We agree that this data could be a valuable tool for governments, for advocates, for journalists and more, and we hope exploring its depths leads to positive developments for the commonwealth.

Read the report from Prison Policy Initiative and New Virginia Majority at

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