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Joyce Endee

WV prison town struggles to keep correction employees local

December 14, 2011
WELCH, W. Va. How will the new federal prison impact the region? Will many of the coveted jobs go to locals or mostly to people from away? These questions are on many people's minds.

Some answers may come from Southern West Virginia, where a similar-sized prison opened two years ago in a deeply depressed rural outpost.

McDowell and Wyoming counties were once the world's largest producers of coal, but with the loss of coal mining jobs over the years, the region has seen much of its population leave. The area also struggle from isolation and hard, inhospitable land. Over the last two decades, prisons have been one of the few things economic development leaders could draw to the region.

In 1999, a local county jail in Welch was converted into a private prison with 108 state inmates and three years later the former Stevens Hospital also became a county-owned prison with 322 inmates. Fifty miles away is two-decade old FCI Beckley with 2,100 inmates.

Two years ago, another Federal prison was built near Welch, a small city with a population 2,406. The Federal Correctional Institution at McDowell is a medium security facility that houses approximately 1,280 male offenders.

State Senator Richard Browning, a Democrat represents the region, was a leading advocate for building FCI McDowell.

"Not one single person was against it," he remembers, and now having been open two years it has not solved their economic woes, but it is helping and optimism is on the rise. The biggest problem is getting people to move to the immediate area and stop commuting to distant places.

"The prison is doing well," Browning said, "I'm really proud of it. It's fitting into the community." The economic shortfall, he said, has more to do with various harsh factors specifically a lack of quality housing and amenities that hold and keep employees in the region. Many of the employees live an hour or so away and commute to Welch. This leaves little money in the host community. It's not easy to build housing in this hill country and water is not always available.

"Prison people that come here want to do things," Browning said, like shop, recreate and dine. The Warden has reported, he said, that "the big problem is keeping employees. People come and go."

Initially, many of the federal jobs went to people outside of the region. In the poverty-stricken hollows of Southern Wes Virginia, the age and good credit requirement was, as the Senator said, "king of hard" to overcome.

Still, he was pleased with the local efforts to get people through the cumbersome hiring process and into good jobs. "I was very surprised" by the success, he said. And the high employee turnover may be an opportunity for a hungry local workforce. Some people, Browning said, have got into the state prison "farm system" and have taken steps to clean up their credit and build their resume with the hope to move into the federal prison. Local school and community colleges are building a local pipeline to work in the prison, but all these things take time. "We'll do whatever it takes," Browning said, "(we) need employees living in the community."

Asked if there have been any problems with safety breaches or families of inmates relocating to the region, Browning said, "none whatsoever."

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