Virginia Prison Sits Empty

INDEPENDENCE, Va. — Virginia’s newest prison, a 1,024-bed facility in Grayson County located just east of Independence, sits empty, four months after completion.

The $105 million prison is empty due to a statewide decline in the inmate population and a reduction in state funding to lock up offenders. The declining numbers are a first in recent memory for Virginia, which has seen its inmate population double since 1995, when the General Assembly voted to abolish parole in favor of building additional prison facilities.

But in the past two fiscal years the number of inmates declined by 2.8 percent. Arrest rates, especially for violent crime and drug offenses, have dropped, contributing to the decline in the prison population. More state inmates have been left in local jails as a result. Those jails have not experienced overcrowding.

The prison, which has yet to be named, could remain empty for another two years or more. Until then, it will employ a skeleton staff of six to maintain the 252,000-square-foot facility and paying for electricity to heat and cool the facility, costing taxpayers nearly $2,000 a day, or $730,000 per year.

The state’s two-year budget includes $715,000 to maintain the prison in the upcoming fiscal year.

Six years ago, Virginia’s prisons were full, housing about 35,000 prisoners, with the number projected to rise to 46,000 by 2010. Lawmakers approved funding in 2004 for two medium-security prisons in Tazewell and Pittsylvania Counties and for the Grayson County prison in 2005.

Today only the Tazewell prison, which opened in 2007, is handling what was predicted to be a surge in prison numbers. The Greenrock Correctional Center in Pittsylvania County, which also opened in 2007, is holding 1,000 inmates from Pennsylvania.

The Virginia Department of Corrections plans to make $10.9 million cut in budget cuts this year, which may include closing one or more prisons. The department already eliminated 2,500 prison beds in the past two years, closing four correctional centers, including ones in Botetourt and Pulaski counties.