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West Virginia has an incarceration rate of 731 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), meaning that it locks up a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on earth. Read on to learn more about who is incarcerated in West Virginia and why.

11,000 people from West Virginia are behind bars

Pie chart showing that 13,000 West Virginia residents are locked up in federal prisons, state prisons, local jails and other types of facilities

Additionally, the number of people impacted by county and city jails in West Virginia is much larger than the graph above would suggest, because people cycle through local jails relatively quickly. Each year, at least 34,000 different people are booked into local jails in West Virginia.

Rates of imprisonment have grown dramatically in the last 40 years

graph showing the number of people in state prison and local jails per 100,000 residents in West Virginia from 1978 to 2015 Also see these West Virginia graphs:

Graph showing the number of people in West Virginia jails who were convicted and the number who were unconvicted, for the years 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, 1999, 2005, and 2013.

This graph excludes people held for state or federal authorities from the total count of people held in West Virginia jails. Because a significant proportion (31%) of the population in West Virginia’s jails is held for the state prison system and the U.S. Marshals Service, this graph likely overstates the convicted population and understates the pre-trial population.

Today, West Virginia’s incarceration rates stand out internationally

graphic comparing the incarceration rates of the founding NATO members with the incarceration rates of the United States and the state of West Virginia. The incarceration rate of 664 per 100,000 for the United States and 731 for West Virginia is much higher than any of the founding NATO members In the U.S., incarceration extends beyond prisons and local jails to include other systems of confinement. The U.S. and state incarceration rates in this graph include people held by these other parts of the justice system, so they may be slightly higher than the commonly reported incarceration rates that only include prisons and jails. Details on the data are available in States of Incarceration: The Global Context. We also have a version of this graph focusing on the incarceration of women.

People of color are overrepresented in prisons and jails

2010 graph showing incarceration rates per 100,000 people of various racial and ethnic groups in West Virginia
racial and ethnic disparities between the prison/jail and general population in WV as of 2010

See also our detailed graphs about Whites, Hispanics, and Blacks in West Virginia prisons and jails.

These graphs use U.S. Census data for all people incarcerated in the state, including people in federal and state prisons, local jails, halfway houses, etc. While state and local facilities contain people processed by the West Virginia judicial systems, the federal prisons contain people sent to those facilities by courts all over the country.

For our purposes, the fact that federal prison populations are included in the Census Bureau's data as residents of West Virginia would be an unimportant statistical quirk except for that fact that there are so many federal prisons in West Virginia. In fact, slightly more than half of the incarcerated people that the Census counted in West Virginia were in a federal prison. This has a dramatic impact of the demographics of the incarcerated population. If the Census Bureau's federal prison counts were removed from this analysis, the incarceration rates would be 396 for Whites, 370 for Hispanics, 1911 for Blacks, and 726 for American Indian and Alaska Natives.

West Virginia's criminal justice system is more than just its prisons and jails

Pie chart showing that 23,000 West Virginia residents are in various types of correctional facilities or under criminal justice supervision on probation or parole

The high cost of being incarcerated in West Virginia

Prisons and jails in West Virginia are increasingly shifting the cost of incarceration to people behind bars and their families, hiding the true economic costs of mass incarceration:

Our other articles about West Virginia

Data on COVID-19 in West Virginia jails and prisons

We gave West Virginia a failing grade in September 2021 for its response to the coronavirus in prisons, noting that:

  • The COVID-19 death rate in West Virginia prisons is almost twice that of the general population.
  • West Virginia is one of 15 prison systems that does not have a policy making hand sanitizer widely available or providing free hygiene products — like soap — to incarcerated people.
  • West Virginia is one of 15 prison systems that has not yet vaccinated more than 60% of the incarcerated population.

For more detail, see our report States of Emergency. Or check out these other resources:

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