More residents from Norfolk were incarcerated in 2020 than from any other Virginia city, according to a new report that for the first time examines where people in prisons and local jails are from in the state.
Broken down, nine Norfolk neighborhoods had incarceration rates two to five times higher than the city’s rate of 1,106 per 100,000 residents — a disparity the report says is generally caused by overpolicing and underinvestment in communities of color.
The Prison Policy Initiative report examined Census and incarceration data from 2020 to determine incarcerations rates in cities and some neighborhoods across the commonwealth. Norfolk and Richmond were found have the highest number of residents behind bars, with 2,653 and 2,496 respectively.
“We know that policing and criminalization tends to target poor communities and people of color, and this is likely part of why Martinsville, Richmond, and Norfolk — cities with higher portions of Black residents and more of the population living in poverty — are facing such high incarceration rates compared to cities of similar sizes in Virginia that are more white and wealthy, like Virginia Beach and Chesapeake,” the report found.
Within Norfolk, the three communities with the highest incarceration rates were Olde Huntersville at 5,690 per 100,000 people — more than five times Norfolk’s overall incarceration rate — Park Place at 4,376 per 100,000 and Bruce’s Park at 3,651 per 100,000. The actual number of imprisoned people from those neighborhoods was 129 from Olde Huntersville, 111 from Park Place and 51 from Bruce’s Park.
“When you remove this many people from an area it fundamentally changes the fabric of that community,” said Mike Wessler, spokesperson for Prison Policy Initiative. “It means you have families that are missing members who played an integral part in the emotional and economic well-being of their households. It weakens the community overall.”
Virginia’s two biggest cities — Virginia Beach and Chesapeake — had far lower incarceration rates, the report found. The rate in Virginia Beach was 396 per 100,000 residents and 611 per 100,000 in Chesapeake.
The report said there is a correlation between higher imprisonment rates and what it defined as “consequences of underinvestment in community well-being.” Those include lower life expectancy, increased mental health disorders, and exposure to environmental dangers.
Local impact of incarceration
Philip Inabinette, program director of Norfolk’s “Second Chances,” a group that aids formerly incarcerated individuals, said Norfolk is a sprawling city that is diverse but has “pockets of poverty” that are worsened when individuals are removed from their communities due to incarceration.
“You are losing a person who could help raise a child or contribute to a household, which is vastly important in this culture for economic equality,” Inabinette said.
Neighborhoods’ high incarceration rates are exacerbated by poverty, a lack of economic opportunities for adults and youth, an influx of drugs and overpolicing, said Monica Atkins, director of Stop the Violence 757.
But Carolyn Latham, a 22-year resident of Olde Huntersville and president of the neighborhood civic league, said the report does not reflect her community and questioned the validity of the home addresses individuals provide to correctional facilities.
“My brother was in and out of prison for 40 years. He never lived with me, but my address and phone number was one he always put down as his home,” Latham said.
Data for the Prison Policy Initiative report was collected after a 2020 law passed that requires Virginia to count incarcerated people by their home address in county population tally, rather than where they are in prison. This prevents “prison gerrymandering,” which inflated the populations in counties and congressional districts with prisons and took voting power away from the counties where the imprisoned were living at the time they entered the criminal justice system, the report said.
Despite Olde Huntersville’s rankings, Latham said her neighborhood is “a striving and thriving community.” Still, Latham said the civic league recognized the need for reentry resources. The civic league helped to launch a new nonprofit group this year, the Olde Huntersville Empowerment Coalition, which connects justice-involved residents with the resources necessary to reenter society.
“We work hard to fight for a healthy community, strong families. We work closely with our community resource officers to have safe and walkable streets,” Latham said. “Every community has their issues in the city of Norfolk. People might think one community is better, but everyone is having problems.”
Reentry programs as a solution
The Prison Policy Initiative report indicates the incarceration rate findings could help policy makers determine the best locations for community-based programs to prevent or reduce involvement with the criminal justice system. The report also points to “the obvious need” for reentry services, which support individuals as they return home from prison.
“The large numbers of people returning to these communities (since the vast majority of incarcerated people do return home) face a host of reentry challenges and collateral consequences of incarceration, including difficulty finding employment and a lack of housing,” the report reads.
A Norfolk spokesperson pointed to a number of reentry programs active in the city to help prevent recidivism — a relapse into criminal behavior. They include the Norfolk Re-entry Council, founded in 2007, which focuses on housing, employment, education, mental health/substance abuse and social reintegration.
While Virginia’s incarceration rate is higher than the national average, Inabinette said the state has one of the lowest recidivism rates at around 24%, second only to South Carolina’s 21% rate.
“Second Chances,” a reentry program offered by the Garden of Hope, has been helping formerly imprisoned individuals return to communities across Norfolk for more than 20 years. Inabinette, who has served as program director for three years, said the process begins behind bars, some 30 to 60 days before a person is released.
“A lot of times, of individual comes home and they hit a brick wall because they are not finding the services they need. That is frustrating and can knock them backwards in this transition,” Inabinette said. “The process is more effective if we start addressing a person’s needs as soon as possible — not waiting until they are released.”
While securing housing and employment is a national issue, Inabinette said the formerly incarcerated face additional barriers to those already challenging tasks.
“You might not have a long resume or skills because you have been incarcerated. You might not have any credit,” he said. “A lot of times they do not have an address to put at the top of a job application, so how do they get that job? How do they get ahead?”
Just as securing stable housing and a livable wage are critical in an individual’s reentry process, so too is community, he said.
“They have to feel like they belong. One of the most basic ways to address crime and poverty-stricken areas is that often individuals don’t feel like ‘This is my home’,” Inabinette said.
Inabinette said when individuals are jailed, they are often treated like inanimate objects by their communities.
“It is like they just went away. But the truth of the matter is they are good friends, neighbors, loved ones and parents,” Inabinette said. “And when they come back, they’re still those people.”
Caitlyn Burchett, 727-267-6059, email@example.com