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News from across the state: New study on mass incarceration in Virginia

by Peter Cihelka

The Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford County. 

A little-heralded legislative reform has yielded insights into which of Virginia’s communities endure the most far-reaching effects of mass incarceration. This term serves as shorthand for the United States’ propensity to put people in prison rather than address underlying social issues that set them on a path to a life behind bars.

The U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation, eclipsing even China. When comparing national incarceration rates—the number of imprisoned residents per 100,000 people—the U.S. also is No. 1.

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

The study—a collaboration with the advocacy group New Virginia Majority—provides reinforcement for issues that already are grimly familiar. It shows that Norfolk and Richmond—though they are not the commonwealth’s most populous places—can claim the dubious distinction of having the highest number of people incarcerated in either jails or prisons. When considering the incarceration rate, the city with the highest level is Martinsville.

“Mass incarceration harms every community in the state,” Prison Policy Initiative Communications Director Mike Wessler said. 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—Virginia’s 18th largest locality by population—has the ninth largest number of inmates, and the 23rd highest incarceration rate. Though the report does not analyze Roanoke in depth, the data shows the neighborhoods most affected by mass incarceration also mostly correspond with those labeled as “hazardous” in an historic redlining map.

Redlining was a racist, early 20th-century practice by the federal government, where it rated the “risk” of urban real estate investments. Districts where African Americans and European immigrants lived consistently were labeled as risky investments. This caused private and federal lenders to avoid providing loans in those communities, and instead funnel 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. This underscores the historic roots of these systemic problems.

“We think the real power in this data is the granularity,” Wessler said. “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.”

“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,” Wessler said. “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 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 is ahead of the curve as only the ninth state to end “prison gerrymandering.”

We agree that this data could be a valuable tool for governments, for advocates, for journalists, and more. We hope that exploring its depths leads to positive developments for the commonwealth.

— Adapted from The Roanoke Times

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