On a flat patch of land 25 miles from the North Carolina border, the next chapter in Virginia's 10-year prison boom will soon rise over tobacco fields in a series of bunkerlike buildings.
In Chatham, the state's Department of Corrections will build one of two new 1,024-bed prisons to house the expected increase in prisoners over the next decade. A similar facility will be built nearly 200 miles away in southwest Virginia; two existing prisons will add a total of 1,400 beds. Altogether, this will create nearly 3,500 new prison beds in the commonwealth by 2007.
The $200 million prison building and expansion program is one of the legacies of Virginia's decision to abolish parole a decade ago. The 1994 initiative, which also established one of the country's first strict sentencing guidelines for all convicted felons, was heralded by supporters as one of the most significant shifts in criminal justice in the commonwealth's history.
Parole abolition fulfilled a gubernatorial campaign promise by George Allen (R), who ran in 1993 on an anti-crime platform. Allen, now a U.S. senator, was one of the dozens of politicians nationwide who won office in an era of rising crime by pledging to toughen the justice system.
The new system required that inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they could be released on the promise of good behavior. The changes also increased sentences for first-time offenders.
"Virginia has . . . restored integrity and honesty and accountability to our criminal-justice system," the governor said after the legislation passed in a special session of the General Assembly on Sept. 30, 1994. Allen's administration predicted his plan would prevent 120,000 felonies over 10 years.
On the 10th anniversary of the changes, there is still considerable discussion about the impact of the legislation, particularly as lawmakers debate the need for more prisons such as the one planned in Chatham.
Both sides in the parole debate admit that many of their predictions have not come true. The increase in prison violence that some opponents expected did not occur. Proponents acknowledge it is impossible to prove how many felonies were prevented.
But to many of them, the results show an unmitigated success. Crime in Virginia has decreased faster than national averages, they say, because violent offenders are spending more time in prison, sometimes three or four times what they served under the parole system. Felons convicted of homicide, robbery and property and drug crimes are incarcerated for an average of 90 percent of their sentences.
"Virginia is a safer place because we abolished parole," Allen said this week.
In addition, he said, the state has been a leader in making sure that nonviolent offenders spend modest amounts of time in prison by using strict sentencing guidelines for judges. That has led to fewer prisoners in correctional facilities than forecast. When the changes were made, Allen said that Virginia would have to build 27 prisons. Instead, it has built 13.
But some lawmakers and advocates for prisoners and their families contend that a state with declining crime rates should not need more prison capacity.
Virginia's inmate population has risen 25 percent, to about 36,000, since the prison-building program began, while the overall state population has grown about 15 percent. Virginia has paid about a half-billion dollars to build prisons.
In many cases, opponents say, more felons could be placed in alternative programs such as day reporting centers, in which the offender is out of prison but closely monitored by corrections workers, who check on daily itineraries, counseling and community service. Such programs are much less expensive than the $22,000 annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner.