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Urban-Rural Divide: Examining Incarceration Rates at Rural Jails Across Virginia

Virginia’s rural communities are struggling with an aging population and stagnant job growth. And there’s another trend behind bars.

Here’s another urban-rural divide, but one you might not expect. Incarceration rates in rural Virginia jails have been spiking for years, doubling over the last 20 years. Meanwhile, pre-trial incarceration has actually gone down in urban parts of the commonwealth. 

“What we see is what we have started to call nationally the shifting geography of mass incarceration," says Jasmine Heiss at the Vera Institute, a non-profit group that studies incarceration across the country.

She says historically people tend to think of incarceration as a primarily urban phenomenon, something that happens in major cities. But… 

“For the last several decades, rural incarceration has been rising," says Heiss. "In some states like Virginia rising catastrophically as incarceration in the biggest cities declines.”

She says part of the issue here is that hospitals have been closing in rural areas, eliminating a social safety net for many people. And those communities don’t have much of a budget for substance abuse treatment or mental health treatment.

“And so increasingly across the country, particularly in resource poor communities, jails have become sort of the first-line response to a whole range of social problems,” she explains.

That’s created a two-tier system in Virginia, where wealthy communities can afford pre-trial services that keep inmates out of jail. Financially-strapped communities can’t, and so more of those people end up in jails across rural Virginia. 

“Some of the pre-trial services that exist in Virginia Beach don’t exist in Botetourt, Virgnia or Grundy, Virginia,” says Ken Stolle. He’s currently the sheriff in Virginia Beach, and was a member of the Virginia Senate from 1992 to 2010.

He says reform efforts during those years played a key role in reducing pre-trial incarceration rates in communities that can afford them. 

“We passed a lot of bills in the mid-2000s to try and get pre-trial people out of jail," Stolle explains. "Those impact the urban areas because they have the resources to do that. The rural communities don’t have the resources to have those pre-trial services.”

There’s another force at work with these numbers, though, according to Evelyn McCoy at the Urban Institute: contracted beds.

Credit Vera Institute

“Beds that are in jail systems that are rented out to other law enforcement or corrections agencies. So that might be for ICE agencies," says McCoy. "That might be for federal prisons, state prisons if they don’t have space for someone.”

In other words, all those federal inmates can be a cash cow for rural communities, which would send their incarceration rates sky high. 

“And that’s incredibly important as we’re thinking about rural counties who have a limited amount of resources, have small capacity, don’t have a lot of criminal justice infrastructure," she explains. "So it’s hard to get away from that financial incentive.”

People tend to think of rural communities as predominantly white. But the Vera Institute also found that Black people in Virginia are 3.2-times more likely to be incarcerated than white people in Virginia.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.