A State With Convictions

Wild, wonderful West Virginia, a land of steep mountains and untamed waters, has gained some publicity over the years as a pleasant place for hunters, coal miners and, more recently, federal convicts.

While most states tend to shy away from inviting notorious felons into the neighborhood, West Virginia has taken to welcoming federal inmates with open arms.

The Mountain State has five federal prisons, including the just-opened $148 million correctional facility in Hazleton. Nearby, construction of a 512-bed women’s prison, at a cost of $76 million, is under way. And the federal Bureau of Prisons has announced plans to build another medium-security prison in McDowell County in the southern portion of the state that will house 1,300 inmates.

Once the projects are completed, the state will host seven federal prisons. Total population, currently at 6,789, will eventually mount to 9,429. At that point, federal prisoners collectively would constitute the 17th-largest city in West Virginia.

Recently, the minimum-security camp in Alderson hosted one of the nation’s most famous jailbirds, domestic maven Martha Stewart, who served several months for her part in lying to federal investigators about a stock sale.

Four states _ California, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania _ feature more federal prisons than West Virginia. But they dwarf West Virginia in both geographic size and population. West Virginia is 41st in size and its 1.8 million residents make it 37th in population.

Prisoners have become the equivalent of a cash crop in West Virginia. The state’s enthusiasm for housing some of America’s worst criminals can be traced to two factors _ a sluggish economy and the indefatigable efforts of Sen. Robert Byrd.

West Virginia is, and historically has been, a poor state. Its economy long was based on coal mining _ 26 of the state’s 55 counties produce coal. But mining jobs have dropped off drastically over the past several decades, and state officials have been searching for ways to replace them. West Virginia’s median income in 2003 was a little more than $46,000, placing it ahead of only Mississippi and New Mexico.

The federal prisons serve as economic development tools. The Bureau of Prisons reports that the Hazleton facility will employ 350 people when it becomes fully operational in 2006 and pump $39 million a year into the economy. The women’s prison under construction will provide another 100 jobs, and the reformatory planned for McDowell County _ to be built atop an abandoned surface mine _ will mean 330 jobs and $35 million in annual economic benefit.

Heading the campaign to transform West Virginia into the world’s largest penal colony is the 87-year-old Byrd, who has spent 47 years in the Senate. As ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd over the years has established that he isn’t shy about funneling federal largesse to his home state. In 1990 he declared, “I want to be West Virginia’s billion-dollar industry.” He has proved successful in that endeavor, and much of his attention over the past few years has been directed at bringing federal prisons and their accompanying jobs to the Mountain State.

Byrd said the new facility in Hazleton will “provide hundreds of jobs for local residents while also playing an important role in the nation’s justice system.”

“The Bureau of Prisons needs more capacity and West Virginia needs more jobs,” he said. “I think that adds up to a mutually beneficial partnership.”

Unlike some politicians, Byrd displays no reluctance about filling his home state with lawbreakers.

“Even for those who have gone very far astray, there is hope,” he said. “Forgiveness is possible.”

Still, there is something ironic about situating federal prisons in West Virginia, a rustically beautiful state whose high mountains, green forests and whitewater would seem to make it more attractive to hunters and other outdoorsmen than hardened criminals.

In 2003, the FBI reported that the state suffered a violent-crime rate of 257.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. Only Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin came in lower. That means not too many native sons and daughters are being kept behind West Virginia’s prison walls.

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)