Prison to close

Published 7:48 am Friday, October 10, 2008

CAPRON—The Southampton Correctional Center, a medium-security prison near Capron, will be closed and demolished, and 116 employees will lose their jobs, according to a budget plan announced by Gov. Timothy Kaine on Thursday.

The prison closing is just part of a detailed plan announced by the governor to address a $973 million revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year. A total of 570 jobs will be cut across state government, 800 unfilled positions will be eliminated, hiring freezes will be continued, and employee raises will be postponed.

The 116 layoffs in the governor’s plan represent the largest proposed reduction of employees in the Department of Corrections.

“I know that the layoffs associated with the cuts come at a challenging time for state employees, and I regret that they are necessary,” Gov. Kaine said in a press release. “I have instructed the Virginia Employment Commission and our Human Resources Department to help those state employees who are laid off through this difficult transition.”

Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the Southampton Correctional Center would be closed by Jan. 25.

The prison, located northwest of Capron at the intersection of Three Creeks Road and Old Belfield Road, currently holds about 650 inmates. Under the governor’s plan, those inmates will be transferred to other correctional facilities in the state.

The state will also use inmates to strip the old prison buildings before they are demolished.

The announcement came as a surprise to local officials. Capron had made efforts to forestall the prison’s closure only a few years ago.

“The town council had sent a letter to them at one point when they were thinking of closing (the prison) before,” said Dianna Sexton, the town clerk. “I think it helped a little bit to keep it there. We had no warning this time.”

County officials were also stunned by the news.

“Certainly it was a surprise,” said Jay Randolph, assistant administrator for Southampton. “We were aware that the state was looking at making some cuts to close the budget gap. We were certainly not aware that any of our local facilities might be affected. We were not expecting one of our major employers would be closed.”

The prison was the fourth-largest employer in Southampton in 2007, according to data supplied by the county. It was the fifth-largest employer in the area when combined with the city of Franklin.

Traylor said the prison currently has 359 employees. He emphasized that despite the layoffs, some workers would be transferred to other jobs in the prison system.

“We are going to try and put a lot of those employees in other open positions,” he said.

Three other prisons in the immediate area — Deerfield Correctional Center, Southampton Work Center for Men, and Southampton Pre-Release and Work Center for Women — are not affected by the budget cuts, Traylor said.

The state plans to continue its agribusiness activities at the site of Southampton Correctional Center with inmates from the other prisons, according to the governor’s plan. Also, the power plant will be kept operational, and some maintenance and support staff will be retained.

According to Traylor, the age of the prison was a factor in the governor’s decision to close and demolish it. The oldest building at the site was built in 1938.

“It’s old,” said Cathy Pope, one of the owners of Pope’s Slip-In in Capron. “We knew they were going to have to do something to it. Once something gets a certain age, it’s cheaper and more cost effective to just do away with it and build another one.

“But it’s just the way that they all of a sudden just brought it on everybody,” Pope said. “We’ve got a lot of friends (working) over there. They didn’t give them any warning, even the warden.”

Warden James V. Beale declined to comment on the governor’s plan.

The state intends to one day build a new prison at the site “when the prison population increases sufficiently to warrant an additional prison,” according to the governor’s plan.

But that announcement was met with some skepticism.

“The confidence level in the state’s construction programs is not real high,” Randolph said. “It’s a nice gesture. I’ll be a little more comfortable at the ribbon-cutting.”