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First guards begin training at prison

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Guards and other staff will be added in groups leading up to the prison's October opening. By then, the medium-security facility will employ an expected 350 people.

By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — The first of numerous sets of correctional officers began their three-month training Friday at the River North Correctional Center in Grayson County.
Ben Wright, warden of the soon-to-open prison, updated the Grayson Board of Supervisors on the progress of the facility as he begins building his staff of nearly 350.
“This has been a night that’s been long coming for us,” said Supervisors Chairman Mike Maynard during the board’s regular monthly meeting last week.
“Welcome to Grayson County,” he told Wright.

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The warden said he is excited about the facility opening and what it will do for Grayson County and the surrounding area.
“I’m glad to be here and glad this thing has gotten off the ground,” Wright said.
According to Wright, the first group of new hires was slated to begin employment at the facility on May 10.
“We have 34 people starting with correctional officer jobs,” Wright said, noting that the training will take three months to complete.
The next group of 32 will begin employment on June 10, with another 30 starting in July. “We will be adding correctional officers in groups all the way up through September,” Wright explained proudly.
Wright is especially pleased that the facility was able to arrange for training correctional officers on site in Independence, instead of trainees having to travel three to four hours away to another facility.
“That’s important,” Wright said, noting the safety concerns with people having to make the long trips for several months, as well as the time away from their families.
While the majority of the positions at the prison will be in corrections, Wright pointed out that additional non-security jobs also are being filled.
Several jobs have already been posted and people hired. The prison will interview for numerous additional positions soon.
Wright said 10 additional staff members have already transferred from other prisons to the Independence facility, and 10 more were expected to begin last week to help get things up and running.
“Many of those [transfers] are people that live in the area and had been driving a long distance to work at other facilities,” Wright explained. “Now they are working closer to home.”
Prison officials have held multiple job fairs in the area and Wright said the response has been fantastic. In April, more than 180 people applied and took the Physical Agility Test. More than 100 of those tested were hired, and most of them are local citizens.
During the open house job fair held last month, Wright said more than 500 people showed up at the prison and an additional 200-plus people visited the prison’s table at Crossroads Institute in Galax the next day.
“We’re very pleased at the applicant pool that we have in this area and the community,” Wright said. “People here really want to work and they do a good job. I’ve been astounded with the quality of applicants we’ve had. It speaks well of the community and this facility when it opens.”
Prison officials are doing interviews every day, Wright continued.
Out of the 34 people on staff currently, 30 are from Grayson or surrounding counties, but Wright pointed out that there has been a lot of interest from people wanting to move to the area, as well.
Maynard asked what other jobs will be available, aside from the security positions, and if those positions required specialized training to work in a correctional facility.
Wright explained that the prison will essentially be a small city and that there will be a lot of non-security positions to fill later in the summer, such as maintenance, medical staff, cafeteria workers and business personnel.
“I expect a lot of our non-security positions to be advertised between now and July,” Wright said.
As for specialized training, Wright said applicants do not have to have special training to be qualified for the positions, but once they are hired they will go through training on how to work with offenders in a correctional facility.
For now, Wright said he was excited to be building his staff and seeing people in the area get jobs. “It’s good to see the parking lot fill up at the facility.”

Correctional Concerns
While many people are excited about the opportunity for new jobs in the area, some have concerns about working inside a prison.
Maynard questioned Wright on what the board members could share with their constituents to help ease the concerns about working in that environment.
“It’s certainly not for everyone,” Wright said of working with offenders on a day-to-day basis.
Wright worked in the public sector while in college, but after graduating had a hard time finding a job. He began working in a correctional facility where he delivered food to the offenders and has worked his way up through the system.
“I’ve been threatened more in the one year [of working] in the public than I have in the last 15 years of working in corrections,” Wright said.
Wright pointed out that there are obvious advantages and disadvantages to working with offenders.
In a prison, offenders go through security constantly to ensure they don’t have things they aren’t supposed to, whereas in the public sector you never know who might come into your place of business, what weapon they might have or what their motive is.
“Working with the offender population, you know, we take numerous security measures to keep the staff safe,” Wright said.
Additionally, the warden explained that if employees have effective communication skills, they can succeed in corrections. However, if prospective employees have a difficult time talking with people or tend to be negative and derogatory, then they will have a hard time working with the offenders.
“I’ve been around offenders for over 15 years and I can say it all boils down to communication,” Wright said. “I’ve never felt like I was in an environment where I was unsafe. But you always have to be cautious of where you are. It’s not for everybody, but it certainly is a rewarding career.”
River North is the fifth correctional facility where Wright has worked, but the first he has opened. “Starting up a new correctional facility is exciting. I appreciate the open arms the community has shown all of us.”

Security Level Questions
One question that has come up multiple times is what security level the River North Correctional Center will be.
Wright said there is still some ongoing discussion regarding the security level, but at this time it is slated to be what the Department of Corrections classifies as a Security Level 4 facility.
“That is not considered a maximum security,” Wright explained.
According to the Department of Corrections website, the assignment criteria for this level include:
• Long-term detention.
• Single, multiple and life-plus sentences.
• No disruptive behavior for at least the past 24 months prior to consideration for a transfer to any less-secure facility.
Wright said that offenders placed in this facility will typically have lengthy sentences, but have typically been on good behavior to be downgraded from a maximum level facility.
“The facility was built to handle this type of population,” Wright said.
Read more about security levels HERE.

Upcoming Events
With a slated opening date in October, Wright said there are a lot of things to be done between now and then.
The facility is expected to employ around 350 people, most of which will be in place when the prison opens.
Wright said a ribbon cutting ceremony is planned for September with Gov. Bob McDonnell.
An open house for the public will also take place later this year. This will allow curious citizens to visit the facility and take a tour prior to any prisoners being brought in.

How to Apply
The prison continues to post new jobs almost daily and officials are interviewing nearly every day, Warden Ben Wright said. Interested applicants can access jobs through the Virginia job posting website www.jobs.virginia.gov/, or through the Virginia Department of Corrections Website www.vadoc.virginia.gov/. Job applications can be completed online, through the Virginia Employment Commission and/or by contacting the Virginia Department of Human Resources.