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Mass incarceration's surprising toll

Prison Policy Initiative

A few years ago it was hard to tell where Virginia’s prisoners came from. Mike Wessler with the Prison Policy Initiative says the census bureau counted incarcerated people as residents of the place where their cells were located.

“What this ends up doing is it gives disproportionate political clout to communities that house prisons that tend to be rural, whiter," he explains. "It takes political clout from communities where people in prison often come from.”

But when the state drew new boundaries for legislative districts, it decided to count those people as residents of the communities where they lived before being convicted. Now, Wessler says, we can see that Richmond and Norfolk lose about a thousand people per hundred thousand to incarceration, but smaller cities suffer even greater losses.

“Martinsville, for example, had 1,787 people per 100,000 residents behind bars. Petersburg had 1,632, Franklin 1,776.”

That, he says, takes a toll on communities. “These people also leave behind families who relied on them for all sorts of support: economic, emotional, childcare, it leaves a trail of devastation in its wake when these people are just plucked up from their communities, placed far, far away.”

The Prison Policy Initiative also studied neighborhoods to see which of them had former residents behind bars. More than half of everyone incarcerated from Richmond comes from just 22 of that city’s 240 neighborhoods.

That’s important information for the state which must decide where to send resources. If Virginia wants end mass incarceration, Wessler argues, it must invest in the communities where prisoners will end up when released.

"This data is a tool that local and state officials can use to really start to undo some of the harm of this failed policy -- build stronger communities by investing in programs that break the cycle of incarceration – education, housing, healthcare, economic opportunities."

Doing that, he says, will actually reduce crime in the Commonwealth.

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

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief