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Where people in prison come from in Staunton, Augusta County, Waynesboro

by Monique CalelloStaunton News Leader

One of the most important criminal legal system disparities in Virginia has long been difficult to decipher: Which communities throughout the state do incarcerated people come from?

Anyone who lives in or works within heavily policed and incarcerated communities intuitively knows that certain neighborhoods disproportionately experience incarceration. But data have never been available to quantify how many people from each community are imprisoned with any real precision.

But now, thanks to redistricting reform that ensures incarcerated people are counted correctly in the legislative districts they come from, citizens can understand the geography of incarceration in Virginia.

Virginia is one of eleven states that have formally ended prison gerrymandering, and now count incarcerated people where they legally reside — at their home address — rather than in remote prison cells. When reforms like Virginia’s are implemented, they bring along a side effect: In order to correctly represent each community’s population counts, states must collect detailed state-wide data on where imprisoned people call home, which is otherwise impossible to access.

According to a new report by Emily Widra, senior research analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, and Kenneth Gilliam Jr., policy director for New Virginia Majority, a deeper dive into the data shows that even within cities there are dramatic differences in rates of incarceration between neighborhoods, often along racial and socioeconomic lines. These data show that — big or small — every community in Virginia is harmed by mass incarceration.

“The nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration harms each and every one of us. This analysis shows that while some communities are disproportionately impacted by this failed policy, nobody escapes the damage it causes,” said Widra. “Our report is just the beginning. We’re making this data available so others can further examine how geographic incarceration trends correlate with other problems communities face.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Staunton, Augusta County, Waynesboro justice-involved individuals

Incarcerated people in Virginia come from every corner of the state: every single one of the state’s 95 counties and 38 cities are missing a portion of its population to incarceration, according to the report.

Waynesboro and Staunton both have incarceration rates well above the state average: 
  • Waynesboro has an incarceration rate of 1,079 people per 100,000 residents (242 total people in prison or jail).
  • Staunton has an incarceration rate of 946 people per 100,000 residents (246 total people in prison or jail).
  • Virginia has a state prison and local jail incarceration rate of 485 people per 100,000 residents.
FIPS code, 2020: 15/ Augusta County
  • 514 people in state prison or local jail, 2020
  • 77,487: census population, 2020
  • 76,264: total population, 2020
  • 674: Imprisonment rate per 100,000
FIPS code, 2020: 790/ Staunton
  • 246 people in state prison or local jail, 2020
  • 25,750: census population, 2020
  • 25,996 total population, 2020
  • 946: Imprisonment rate per 100,000
FIPS code, 2020: 820/ Waynesboro
  • 242 people in state prison or local jail, 2020
  • 22,196: census population, 2020
  • 22,438: total population, 2020
  • 1,079: Imprisonment rate per 100,000

Source: Prison Policy Initiative; FIPS: Federal Information Processing Series per U.S. Census Bureau

Imprisonment and consequences

Across the country, research according to the report reveals the numerous correlations between imprisonment and other consequences of underinvestment in community well-being:   

  • Life expectancy: A 2021 analysis of New York State census tracts found that tracts with the highest incarceration rates had an average life expectancy more than two years shorter than tracts with the lowest incarceration rates, even when controlling for other population differences. A 2019 analysis of counties across the country revealed that higher levels of incarceration are associated with both higher morbidity (poor or fair health) and mortality (shortened life expectancy).

  • Community health: A nationwide study, published in 2019, found that rates of incarceration were associated with a more than 50% increase in drug-related deaths from county to county.

  • Mental health: A 2015 study found that people living in Detroit neighborhoods with high prison admission rates were more likely to be screened as having a current or lifetime major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

  • Exposure to environmental dangers: A 2021 study found that people who grew up in U.S. census tracts with higher levels of traffic-related air pollution and housing-derived lead risk were more likely to be incarcerated as adults, even when controlling for other factors.

  • Education: In a 2020 Prison Policy Initiative analysis of incarcerated New Yorkers’ neighborhoods of origin, we found a strong correlation between neighborhood imprisonment rates and standardized test scores. 

  • Community Resources and Engagement: A 2018 study found that throughout the country, formerly incarcerated people (as well as all people who have been arrested or convicted of a crime) are more likely than their non-justice-involved counterparts to live in a census tract with low access to healthy food retailers. And the 2017 report on Worcester, Massachusetts, revealed that high-incarceration neighborhoods had lower voter turnout in municipal elections.

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