Prison's security level could be elevated

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — The Virginia Department of Corrections is considering an upgrade in security level at the new Mount Rogers Medium Security Facility under construction outside of Independence.

“We are considering upgrading this facility from a Security Level 3 to a Security Level 4 facility,” said Larry Traylor, spokesman for the DOC, in an e-mail to The Gazette. “It would still be considered a medium security facility.”

The men’s prison will have 1,038 general population beds and 20 segregated beds.

Traylor could not disclose of specific changes to the building that would be required because of security issues, but said, “We are therefore making some construction changes now, rather than later, to facilitate this possible change. No final decision has been made, however.”

According to the DOC’s Web site, there is little difference between a Level 3 and Level 4 facility when it comes to inmates.

Level 3 assignment criteria includes inmates with single, multiple and life sentences, who have served 20 consecutive years on their sentence. It also requires that the inmate have no disruptive behavior for at least 24 months prior to consideration for a transfer to any less-secure facility.

Level 4 assignment criteria also includes long-term single, multiple and life sentences, with no disruptive behavior for at least 24 months prior to consideration for a transfer to any less-secure facility.

Virginia has three Level 4 security facilities and 11 Level 3 facilities.

The Grayson County prison was originally scheduled to open in July 2010, but the DOC was not given operating funds for fiscal year 2010.

However, that does not necessarily guarantee the prison won’t open by the scheduled date. According to Del. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County), there is another chance for the funding to become available and for the prison to open on time.

Carrico told The Gazette that the operating funds were not included in the 2009-10 state budget because there is no guarantee that the prison will be ready to open by July 2010.

When the General Assembly reconvenes next January, Carrico said the funds could be added if necessary.

According to the delegate, the operating funds were not already budgeted because the prison will not be in operation during the fiscal year 2010, which ends on June 30, 2010.

With the state of the economy, legislators figured that money could be used elsewhere this fiscal year.

In a tough economy, Carrico agreed that it is hard to justify including the operational money when the prison is not even complete.

The delegate added that the decision will fall to whoever is elected Virginia's next governor in November. “We plan to try and work with the new governor to ensure the operational money is appropriated in 2010 to begin the hiring process at that time.”

If, however, the funding is delayed until the fiscal year 2011 budget, the money would not be made available until July 1, 2010 — only weeks before the prison is expected to open. That would still mean a delay in hiring personnel and preparing the facility to accept prisoners.

Carrico said the other option legislators could consider next January is to make a provision in the budget to begin hiring a few months before the expected opening date.

“I don’t foresee that there is going to be any reason why, when the new governor takes office in January, that this budget won’t have operational money there,” Carrico continued. “There are so many state-committed prisoners that need to be put back into the system.”

Another option for legislators is including the operational funds in what Carrico referred to as the “caboose budget,” which keeps state operations going until July 1.

If there is any indication that the prison will be ready on time, the money could be put into the caboose budget, he said.

It's simply hard to justify the spending in a year when billions of dollars worth of cuts were needed to balance a budget. The state would essentially be taking a pot of money and setting it aside for operation of a prison that's not open yet, Carrico explained.

The prison is expected to employ about 350 people.

The project was funded with $99 million in Virginia Public Building Authority funds, plus $1.5 million in general state funds. An additional $4 million in VPBA funds were appropriated in 2008 for road construction.