Residents question officials on correctional center
By Stephen H. Cowles and Stephen Faleski
Numerous Isle of Wight County residents on Thursday took advantage of their first opportunity to question local and state government officials regarding plans to locate a juvenile correctional facility approximately one mile south of Windsor.
Andrew J. Block Jr., director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, led two question-and-answer sessions held in the Windsor Town Center.
Farmers Bank President Dick Holland was at both and criticized the county government for soliciting the state to have the 60-bed facility, originally planned to be built in Chesapeake, constructed in Isle of Wight County instead, and for offering free land plus a $500,000 local contribution toward extending utility services to the site — all without first obtaining input from taxpayers.
At the second program, Holland called the presentations “a whitewash job” comparable to the fictional character of Tom Sawyer and his mischievousness. At first, though he said, “These hearings should have occurred back in December (2017.) If we have a public hearing (now) it means zero. The decision has already been made by the supervisors.”
To this, Keaton initially replied that there had been “a lot of public discussion” about the facility but later admitted Holland was correct in his assertion that the county Board of Supervisors’ initial discussion about bringing the facility to Isle of Wight, and its decision to offer the free land and $500,000, were both done in closed session.
Joel Acree, the Windsor District representative on the county’s Board of Supervisors, added that representatives from Windsor’s Town Council had been invited to participate in some of the closed session discussions, and clarified that the $500,000 toward utility costs was for the purpose of expanding the new water and sewer lines so that other businesses and residents could tap into them.
“They (the state) were only talking about one that would accommodate their facility; I said we need more capacity,” Acree said. “That’s where the $500,000 came from, to make it larger.”
Residents living nearby who have wells would not be required to tap into the new water and sewer lines, he clarified.
Acree added that the reason the negotiations had been done in closed session was because he and the other supervisors were under the impression at the time that the county would be in competition with other localities for the project. However, when asked how many other localities made the Department of Juvenile Justice’s “short list,” Block said that the state was not able to find any other location that would not have cost state taxpayers additional money and was in an area where the department wanted to be.
“What we were looking at was privately owned land we would have had to buy, so this was a very attractive offer,” he said.
Acree then said he did not feel that the correctional center was a “done deal,” as the county’s Economic Development Authority owns the land that would need to be transferred to the state. Keaton added that if the EDA is able to transfer property directly to the state, no public hearing would be required, but if the EDA must first transfer the property to the county, a public hearing would be required.
“The EDA was created to facilitate transfer of property quicker and easier, so if there is a company that comes in, it can be transferred easier than going through the public process with the county,” Keaton said.
As for Windsor’s involvement in the county’s talks with the state, Holland claimed that the Town Council has told him that they do not want this facility to be built near Windsor. However, Keaton claimed that at the time the county supervisors were in negotiation with the state, the town had sent a letter to Delegate Emily Brewer (R-64) in support of the idea. Carita Richardson, who was mayor at the time the letter was sent, admitted to signing it but said the reason she had done so on behalf of the council was that at the time, the county had presented the idea as a way to get utilities to Phase III of the intermodal park.
“We also liked the idea of trying something new for the young people,” Richardson said.
She added that two to three months later, the council learned that wetlands had been discovered throughout much of the intermodal park.
“It became apparent we would not be able to do much development of all those acres of land,” Richardson said. “We started questioning, is it worth putting this much tax money into (the project.)”
Holland and Len Alphin, who represents the Windsor District on the county’s Economic Development Authority, also criticized attempts to refer to the facility as anything other than a prison.
“We’re getting a prison,” Holland said. “You can paint this any way you want, but it’s a prison with criminals.”
But Keaton countered that what the county was “getting” out of this deal was 240 jobs for a minimal investment, plus a $1.5 million extension of water and sewer services for a third of the cost.
Block added, “It’s easy to say they’re criminals, or that their families don’t care, but if that’s the only way we think about them, we stand very little chance of changing their trajectory. The idea of being closer to families is an idea we’ve been talking about, not just for Isle of Wight, for four years.”
He had previously said that the reason the Department of Juvenile Justice is interested in constructing smaller facilities such as the one proposed for Isle of Wight County is to reduce the travel time for parents to see their incarcerated children. Currently, parents must travel from all over the state to the department’s Bon Air correctional center in Chesterfield County. A majority of those housed in the Isle of Wight County facility, Block said, would be from the Hampton Roads region.
Other county residents questioned how many boys versus girls would be housed in the Isle of Wight facility, whether staff would be armed, and the likelihood that those released from a Department of Juvenile Justice facility would re-offend.
Block replied that the Isle of Wight County facility would be limited to boys and that staff would not be armed. As for recidivism, he said that currently, about 75 percent of those released from the department’s custody are rearrested within three years.
“Those are kids coming out of these big facilities (like Bon Air) … Part of the reason we’re doing this is because we’ve had 20 years of lack of success. For me, being paid with your tax dollars, I would rather say let’s try to do better,” Block said.
Katie Moore asked whether there was any chance the facility, if built, would someday expand. Block said it’s not the department’s intention for the facility to increase in size, but even if it did, it would not double or triple.
One person who did sound supportive was Matthew LeClair, who lives in the Riverwood section in Suffolk next to the Western Tidewater Regional Jail. He’s lived there for 15 years and said there’s never been an incident of escapees. This was confirmed by Mike Wells, who supervises work programs at the jail.
Dale Scott of Windsor said, “This is our home. The land bought 10 years ago was done without due diligence and 10 years later it’s the same. Another poor decision.”
At the end of the evening session, though, Marion Neighbours of Franklin said he would speak neither for nor against the facility. Instead, he said, “Everyone has the right to their opinion and we should respect that person. Let’s work together.”