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Prison opening came after long wait

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Speakers at ceremony tout facility’s economic impact

By Patrick Smith

INDEPENDENCE — After years of anticipation and struggles for funding in the General Assembly, River North Correctional Center in Independence officially became operational last week following a ribbon cutting Sept. 25.
The $105 million, 1,024-bed, medium security (Level 4) facility was open to hundreds of state and local dignitaries and officials for the afternoon ceremony and guided tours of the facility.

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All speakers at the ceremony remarked about the impact the facility is expected to have on the local economy, as River North will now employ 339 people in professions ranging from correctional officers to dentists to teachers.
River North Warden Ben Wright began the ceremony by greeting guests and recognizing individuals who played key roles in bringing the facility to life after sitting empty since 2010, due to lack of appropriated state funding.
“Today is the reality of a dream long-awaited,” said Virginia Department of Corrections Western Regional Operations Chief G.K. Washington.
“This was always going to be a promising venture for the Commonwealth,” Gov. Bob McDonnell said at the ceremony. “The budget put on some constraints, but I’m so glad today has finally arrived.”
Many of the other speakers praised McDonnell for his efforts to secure the funding to open the prison. In January, the governor included $14.3 million for River North operational funding in the state budget, and in February the General Assembly approved an additional $3.5 million to open the facility in October, months earlier than originally planned.
McDonnell noted that Sept. 25 was a significant day for both Grayson County and the state, as River North is the first new prison to open in Virginia since 2007. He also complimented all involved with bringing about the opening, as well as Warden Wright for his work in preparing the facility’s staff and creating helpful programs for the future inmates to participate in during their incarceration.
“The warden has some really great prisoner workforce re-entry programs, and the security here is really second to none,” he said. “This facility will be a landmark in terms of programs and security.”
Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke said that the opening of River North is good news for other prisons in the state because it will reduce overcrowding and move some 500 offenders from local jails to the brand new facility. He also expanded on the topic of the facility’s security and emergency preparedness, reassuring Grayson County residents that prisons “make good neighbors.”
“The DOC staff is ready. We’ve been preparing the staff since we were told the funds were appropriated for the facility,” he said. “A Level 4 prison often conjures images of bars and wires, but our mission is public safety.”
Speaking on behalf of Grayson County during the event were Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County), who was credited by other speakers as having been instrumental in the effort to open the facility since the project began eight years ago; Del. Israel O’Quinn (R-Bristol) and Grayson Board of Supervisors Chairman Kenneth Belton.
“This is a really, really exciting day,” said O’Quinn. “This will create a huge economic ripple effect, and we will see businesses spring up and boost the tax base, which will mean better schools, public services and real estate.”
In terms of the workforce impact on the area, it was revealed that 37 percent of the employees hired at River North so far are from Grayson County, and 85 percent of all hires are either from Grayson County or surrounding areas. The facility’s annual payroll will be around $16 million, and will operate on a budget of approximately $23 million.
“The main thing I wanted to say today was thank you,” said Carrico. “Thank you to the citizens of Grayson County. I believe nothing happens by chance, but by hard work and what God allows you to accomplish.”
Carrico ended his speech with a prayer for the facility and its staff
The ceremony ended with a speech from Wright, who expressed his enthusiasm about the facility’s opening and appreciation to his staff.
“I am incredibly proud of the work that has been done to get this facility ready and the professional nature of our new correctional officers and correctional center staff,” the warden said. “The community has been really welcoming, and there is an understanding that what we’re doing here involves preparing offenders for successful re-entry into this and other communities in Virginia.”
The ceremony last week and an open house held on Tuesday marked some of the few times the general public will be allowed to enter the facility. Its first inmates will begin arriving in the upcoming weeks, and the staff will finally be able to put their months of extensive training to use.