New Virginia prison sits empty, at a cost of more than $700,000 a year

May 30, 2011

This is how bad the economy is in southwestern Virginia: People are wishing they had more criminals in town.

That’s because Grayson County has a brand-new state prison standing empty. No prisoners. And that means no guards, no administrators, no staff, no jobs.

“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.

McDonnell’s press secretary did not comment.

The amendment died.

“We’re going to do all we can to get this prison open — we just have to be patient and see what this administration finds out about the numbers that we have to work with,” Carrico said. “I know this administration is working hard to not leave a prison that we built unattended but, you know, they inherited a budget deficit. . . . During hard times, cuts have to be made.”

In Grayson, about 50 miles southwest of Roanoke, near the North Carolina line, the signs of hard times are all around: shuttered factories, sagging roofs, blinds hanging in empty storefronts, and, at the industrial park, just one company name on the big sign out front.

“Textile’s gone. Furniture’s leaving. Mills are shutting down,” said Jonathan Sweet, the county administrator. Some residents are still farming, raising Christmas trees or cattle. Many have to drive to other counties for work.

The county’s biggest employer is the school system. In part because officials were anticipating more children coming with the influx of prison jobs, the county raised taxes to build more schools. Without the prison, though, the county’s population didn’t increase.

“It impacts us in every aspect,” said Larry K. Bartlett (R), chairman of the Grayson Board of Supervisors. “People are upset and depressed about the promises that were made. . . . They heard these reports. Now it has not come true, and they’re having to pay the bill — not directly, but indirectly.”

People are worried, Bartlett said. “We are struggling . . . and people are having to drive out of the community to get jobs and are moving out.” That’s why the population has gone down, he said.

Carrico said he believes that a solution might be found — perhaps bringing prisoners in from another state to Grayson’s empty cells.

“We’re on bended knee, hoping the state makes adjustments to the correctional budget,” Sweet said. “I’m hoping something substantial takes place within the next 18 months. It would be a huge boon for Grayson and the region.”

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