Group pushes to open Grayson prison

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Chamber of Commerce launches letter-writing campaign to convince legislators to fund facility

By Staff Reports

YOU CAN TAKE ACTION — Download and print a copy of the prison support letter by clicking links at the end of this story. You'll also find names of General Assembly members who serve on the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee.


INDEPENDENCE — The Twin County Regional Chamber of Commerce is spearheading a campaign to open the state’s mothballed prison in Grayson County.
Executive Director Judy Brannock recently unveiled the plan at last month’s Grayson County Board of Supervisors meeting.
Brannock said the $104.5 million prison was completed more than two years ago and, due to the lack of operating funds, only a few people work there to maintain it.
“The prison is already there and it takes money to maintain it whether it’s open or closed,” Brannock said. “The prison is ready for prisoners and would provide a multi-million dollar payroll to a staff of about 300 employees.”
She said opening the prison also “would bring a lot of visitors to Independence, who in turn would stay in our motels, eat in our restaurants, buy groceries and gas from our gas stations.”
A form letter is being prepared that can be signed and mailed to members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, the two groups who would decide the prison’s fate.
(A copy is available at The Gazette’s website, www.galaxgazette.com.)
Grayson County Administrator Jonathon Sweet said the letters do not need to be sent to state Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) or Del. Israel O’Quinn (R-5th District), who already support opening the prison and have proposed budget items to accomplish that.
Brannock said radio station WBRF-98.1 FM in Galax also planned to run a series of public service broadcasts about the push to open the prison.
Last week, Brannock was interviewed about the campaign at the Grayson County Courthouse by a WSLS-10 crew from Roanoke about the campaign. The interview aired on their news programs.
Carrico and O’Quinn have both introduced bills in the Virginia General Assembly to approve operating funds for the prison during the 2012 General Assembly session now in progress in Richmond.
During the 2011 General Assembly session, legislators did not include any funding in the state budget for opening the prison, though it gave the governor authority to open the facility if it houses out-of-state inmates or reduces the number of state-offenders in regional jails.
In 2011, the Virginia Senate’s state budget proposal included $7 million to open a portion of the prison near Independence and creating about 232 jobs. But, that measure failed.
A report to the Senate Finance Committee from the Subcommittee on Public Safety, dated Feb. 6, 2011, states that the Virginia Department of Corrections “has closed eight facilities over the past two years, and is about to close one more [the James River Correctional Center], but we believe the time has come to begin replacing those beds by phasing in the new, more efficient facility which has just been completed in Grayson County.
“The department has maintained over 800 temporary, emergency beds for almost 10 years, on top of a very high level of double-bunking in its dormitory units. We should not expect the department to maintain this level of pressure in the system on a permanent basis,” the report continues.
“By phasing-in the new facility at Grayson County, we will create 232 new jobs in an area with high unemployment and population loss, in addition to providing a positive impact on the private economy in the region.”
Attached to the report were estimated costs associated with opening the facility — $1 million for training the staff hired for the Grayson County prison and $12 million to phase in two of the four housing units for prisoners.
Last year, Carrico — at that time a member of the House of Delegates — introduced a proposal for full funding of $24 million, but the budget amendment didn’t make it out of the House Appropriations committee, dying in early February 2011. That proposal would have resulted in more than 300 jobs.
The state budget does include a provision that allows Gov. Bob McDonnell to open “housing units at the facility provided that the costs of opening the facility can be achieved by either reducing the number of state-responsible offenders in jail or by housing out-of-state inmates.”
The governor cut Department of Corrections funding by $10 million last year.
The prison support letter drafted by the chamber asks legislators to support two budget items related to opening the prison — Budget Item 388 #1s and Budget Item 388 #3h.
“With an unemployment rate, consistently 3-5 percentage points higher than that of the state average, the counties of Grayson and Carroll and the City of Galax are in dire need of the gainful employment opportunities this center would create,” the letter says. “Additionally, the opening of the complex would effectively provide the Commonwealth with a more efficient and cost effective means for housing the state’s prison population.”
The letter also asks legislators to “consider that so many of the region’s displaced workers have made personal sacrifices to return to school to obtain their degrees and certifications in criminal justice, police science and other corrections related fields. These folks have done so with the intent of launching a new career and brighter future with the Virginia Department of Corrections.
“The lives and finances of these individuals and their families have been put on hold, as well as the turn around in the region’s economy, by the extensive delay in authorizing the operational funds to open this facility.”