If You Build Prisons, Will they Come?


ews that Virginia is spending $700,000 a year to maintain a new but empty prison in Grayson County built at a cost of $105 million should be attracting the attention of budget cutters in the office of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

The prison is one of 11 that have been shut down in the last few years because of a lack of prisoners. For whatever reason — the bad economy, demographic shifts or better policing — violent crime is down 5.5 percent nationally in the past year. In Richmond, once the
nation’s homicide capital per capita, crime is down 6.2 percent.

So how did Virginians get stuck with so many unneeded prisons anyway?

One place to look is George Allen, the former governor and senator who is now running for his old Senate seat. Back in 1993, Allen, a Republican, was running for governor behind Attorney General. Mary Sue Terry. So, Allen exploited what was seen as a very big issue back then — crime. Allen pressed the idea of making Virginia a tough-on-crime state, and he promised to end parole. And that’s what he did after he won the election. Plus, he led Virginia on a big prison expansion to handle the state’s fast-expanding prison population.

Although the Grayson prison was built after Allen had moved on to the U.S. Senate, it is still part of his legacy.

Peter Galuszka

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