“I wish they would go ahead and open it up,” said Rhonda James of Mouth of Wilson, echoing many residents there. “We really need it in the county really bad.”
Three hundred new jobs — maybe 350 — that’s what people were told when the prison was planned. With about 11 percent unemployment and no relief in sight, that sounded really good to an awful lot of people here.
But months after the commonwealth finished building the 1,024-bed medium-security prison for $105 million, it remains empty, coils of razor wire and red roofs shining in the sun, new parking lot all but deserted and a yawning warehouse waiting for supplies.
And it’s costing more than $700,000 a year to maintain.
A half-dozen employees work there, keeping the heat on in the winter to prevent the pipes from freezing, the air-conditioning on in summer to prevent mold from growing.
In 2008, the inmate population was projected to grow by a thousand a year, according to a report given to the secretary of public safety. The commonwealth had been expanding prisons and building new ones.
But a couple of things happened: The economy collapsed. And the number of prisoners didn’t grow as expected.
“Recent forecasts across the country have flattened for adults and juveniles, both state and local populations,” Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said in an e-mail.
In Virginia, he said,“crime rates and most arrest rates are down, even for violent and heavier drug crimes, which are primary drivers of the forecast.”
Experts across the country have been trying to explain the changes, he added, without success.
In 2009, as the recession took hold, then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) slashed the budget.
With the prison budget in excess of $1 billion at the time, it was an obvious target.
Last year, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and state legislators continued apace, cutting billions from the state budget.
The commonwealth has closed 10 prisons since January 2009, Traylor said. Southampton Correctional Center, Pulaski Correctional Center, Dinwiddie Correctional Unit, Tazewell Correctional Unit, White Post Detention Center and Chatham Diversion Center were closed before February 2009. Brunswick Correctional Center and Botetourt Correctional Center closed in the winter 2010. In the summer 2010, it was announced that Grayson’s prison would not open. And this April, the James River Correctional Center closed.
Grayson’s was the only brand-new facility that was closed. Because of the major shortfalls, the $25 million annual operating cost was not included in the state budget.
This year, Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson) introduced a budget amendment to staff the prison. But the number of state inmates had dropped, he said, so McDonnell’s administration, with the new Virginia corrections director, Harold Clarke, is evaluating all of the state’s prisons.