This is how bad the economy is in southwestern Virginia: People are wishing they had more criminals in town.
Three hundred new jobs — maybe 350 — that’s what people were told when the prison was planned. With about 11 percent unemployment and no relief in sight, that sounded really good to an awful lot of people here.
But months after the commonwealth finished building the 1,024-bed medium-security prison for $105 million, it remains empty, coils of razor wire and red roofs shining in the sun, new parking lot all but deserted and a yawning warehouse waiting for supplies.
And it’s costing more than $700,000 a year to maintain.
A half-dozen employees work there, keeping the heat on in the winter to prevent the pipes from freezing, the air-conditioning on in summer to prevent mold from growing.
In 2008, the inmate population was projected to grow by a thousand a year, according to a report given to the secretary of public safety. The commonwealth had been expanding prisons and building new ones.
But a couple of things happened: The economy collapsed. And the number of prisoners didn’t grow as expected.So, let's balance this out. Pros: lower crime, fewer (expensive) prisoners, and fewer (expensive) prisons. Cons: fewer prison jobs, taxpayers already paid to build the prison, and taxpayers are still paying for its upkeep. Jobs are certainly important, but do we really want to fill prisons just to employ people? Is that a fiscally wise trade-off, for taxpayers or for society? What if Virginia created 350 jobs for supervising more nonviolent offenders in the community, instead of sending them to prisons? What if rural areas didn't look to prisons to fill their employment needs?
How would you create 350 jobs in rural areas without resorting to filling prisons?