RICHMOND, JUNE 25 -- The decision on where to build the largest prison in Virginia's history, to be made next month by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles in conjunction with the state's Department of Corrections, is likely to involve both practical and political considerations about where to incarcerate the state's record total of 11,400 inmates, who have overflowed existing facilities.
Corrections officials have looked at three or four dozen sites in the last few months and have narrowed the choices to about a dozen, none of which is in Northern Virginia, according to Vivian E. Watts, secretary of transportation and public safety.
Penelope S. Anderson of Springfield, who is on the nine-member corrections board, said the department "teases everyone so often by saying they're going to build a prison in downtown Fairfax," but added that she "senses no strong need to sandwich one between shopping centers" in Northern Virginia.
A decision on where to build a prison should be left to Corrections Department professionals, she said.
VVKR Inc., an Alexandria architectural and engineering firm, apparently will get the contract to design the facilities, Watts said.
Baliles originally suggested that a 1,700-bed prison be built in Charles City County, a poor and sparsely populated area about 20 miles southeast of Richmond, but that plan was dropped after more than 500 people opposed the idea at a hearing there in January.
As a result, the Virginia General Assembly adopted a resolution that said in part: "The system operates to protect all citizens, and in return, citizens must accept an equal share of the burden to operate such a system."
In other words, Watts explained, the new prison, or prisons, should be located where it makes the most sense, from a corrections standpoint. Charles City still could be in the running, like it or not, she said.
Lobbying hardest for a prison is Buchanan County, in far Southwest Virginia, where hard times in the coal fields have kept the unemployment rate in double digits for more than four years. Interest also has been expressed by groups in Greensville and Lunenburg counties in rural Southside Virginia.
The biggest drawback to the Buchanan County proposal is the area's remoteness.
The legislature's resolution directs the Corrections Department to select locations "adjacent to areas where most inmates are committed, in order for them to maintain ties to the community and family."
About 75 percent of the state's prisoners are sentenced from the urban crescent that runs from Northern Virginia through Richmond to Hampton Roads.
But none of the 16 major penal institutions is in the northern region, which runs in an arc from Fredericksburg to Winchester. Five field units -- updated versions of road gangs -- are in Northern Virginia.
Corrections Director Edward W. Murray said last fall that "we'd certainly like" to build a prison in Northern Virginia, and in December the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly's auditing arm, made a similar recommendation, which it said would allow the growing number of inmates from that area to be closer to their families.
But Murray's boss, Watts, a former Fairfax County legislator, responded that "we have to be realistic. We can't go fight long, local battles to get a facility accepted."
While not counting out the Buchanan bid, Watts said that "certain geographic locations would make oversight more difficult, especially if someone had to travel six or eight hours" from corrections headquarters in Richmond. "As with any business," she said, "good communication between the home office and branches is important."
There are indications, however, that political considerations could tip a decision in favor of the Buchanan site, probably in conjunction with another location closer to the population centers.
An aide to Baliles noted that the governor is scheduled to address the Southwest Virginia Economic Development Commission on July 14 in Abingdon, and that he will make his decision on the prison "on or before" that appearance.
Rep. Frederick C. Boucher (D-Va.), who represents Southwest Virginia in Congress, said the Buchanan County site "makes sense from an economic standpoint because unemployment, in real terms, exceeds 40 percent" in the area.
State Del. Franklin M. Slayton (D-Halifax), who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee on public safety, guessed that corrections will recommend "either one very large prison of 1,800 or so beds" or two facilities, one of 1,200 beds in the populous eastern half of the state and a smaller one in the far southwest.
"Whatever is built will be larger than any prison ever built in this state," said Slayton, who noted that Virginia officials have looked at the decision of Maryland to build a 1,500-bed prison in Somerset County, on the Eastern Shore, to bolster the economy of that state's poorest county.
Wherever Virginia's new correctional facilities are built, they will allow the Baliles administration to accomplish two goals: relieve inmate crowding, which has forced 1,800 state felons to be retained in county jails across the state, and close the state's ancient, outmoded penitentiary near downtown Richmond.
In his State of the Commonwealth speech in January, Baliles noted that the adult population in the prison system was growing by 80 inmates a month, which he said was equivalent over a year's time to two 500-inmate facilities.
"While community diversion programs are invaluable and constructive," Baliles told the legislature, "there comes a point when we must meet the challenge of overcrowding by doing what all states have been forced to do: build additional facilities."
Baliles proposed funding for 1,700 additional spaces now, and eventually as many as 2,200. The legislature responded by authorizing the sale of up to $110 million in bonds by the Virginia Public Building Authority to finance the work.