Charleston Daily Mail

CHARLESTON -- West Virginia would tie Florida for fourth in the nation with six federal prisons should congressional leaders salvage threatened funds for a new medium-security facility planned in McDowell County.

Three of West Virginia's federal prisons -- in Hazelton, Beckley and Glenville -- have been built in the past decade in a push that began with Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd's assumption of the Senate appropriations committee chairmanship in 1989.

Members of the state's congressional delegation praise the increasing number of federal prisons in West Virginia.

Critics say the prison construction that has taken place during the past decade is more about political capital and less about salvation for financially strapped rural areas that have been hit hard by declines in mining, farming and other industries.

Tracy Huling, an independent consultant who has studied the phenomenon, said the federal government engages heavily with poor, rural areas when looking to build a new prison.

"The feds search for states that will take these prisons," Huling said. "A lot of states won't."

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia don't have any federal prisons.

Huling said the economic benefits for rural communities are short-term and could have detrimental effects on a community over time for a variety of reasons.

"Politicians cut the ribbon, say they've delivered ‘X' number of jobs and be done with it," Huling said. "Prisons create jobs. But no, those jobs do not end up decreasing unemployment rates."

Meanwhile, Ann d'Auteuil Bartolo, who teaches classes on corrections at Fairmont State University and is a federal Bureau of Prisons retiree, says federal prisons do exactly what they're touted by politicians to do -- bring jobs and accompanying economic results.

"See how many more homes have been built," Bartolo said. "What happened to the little gas station that has now become a big gas station?"

Federal employees who transfer to new prisons in rural communities take between 40 and 50 percent of the new jobs. They are paid well and are educated, Bartolo said.

They spend their money locally. School systems benefit because of the influx of students coming in with federal transfers, she said.

West Virginia already had federal prisons in Alderson and Morgantown when the federal government started building more about a decade ago as Robert Byrd assumed leadership of the Appropriations Committee.

In his first year heading up the powerful committee, Byrd added funds to legislation that helped build the $80 million facility in Beckley, which was dedicated in 1995 and offered about 300 jobs.

"They call it pork in Washington," Byrd was quoted as saying back then. "It's spelled jobs in West Virginia."

Eight years later, officials were cutting the ribbon on the medium-security federal prison in Glenville. Byrd and then-Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., steered $135 million in public funds towards its construction.

In 1999, Byrd and Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., added a $10 million amendment to an appropriations bill that helped build the $148 million high-security federal penitentiary in Hazelton, Preston County, which was dedicated last year.

Beginning in 1997, Byrd was able to secure about $6 million for infrastructure upgrades at the Indian Ridge industrial site in McDowell County to make the area more appealing to federal Bureau of Prisons scouts, who ended up selecting the site in August.

"The Bureau of Prisons needs more capacity, and West Virginia needs more jobs," Byrd said last week in a statement. "I think that adds up to a mutually beneficial partnership."

Members of West Virginia's congressional delegation agree. Democratic Congressman Nick Rahall said federal prisons are vital to rural economies and should be embraced.

"Prison construction is a fact of life," Rahall said in a statement. "We should leverage it to achieve its fullest potential for some good to come from it."

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said: "The prison in Gilmer County has shown us that these facilities create economic benefits that ripple throughout the surrounding area."

Stuart Chapman, spokesman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, said: "Federal prisons mean hundreds of new jobs with great benefits for workers in the region.

"That's a deal that's hard to pass up, and that's why Sen. Rockefeller has been working so hard with local business leaders and government officials to get the McDowell County prison built."

In each of the three counties where federal prisons have been located in the last decade -- Raleigh, Gilmer and Preston -- the U.S. Department of Justice is listed among the top 10 employers.

The unemployment rates in each of these counties currently hover around the state average -- 4.5 percent. Statewide, positions as corrections officers, which make up the majority of the jobs available to local residents, are expected to grow by 0.77 percent by 2012, according to the state Bureau of Employment Programs.

A study in which Huling participated found that unemployment rates in rural communities with prisons moved in the same direction as those without them. A link to the text of that study can be found at: http:// www. nicic.org/Library/018589.

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