When things got tough, the people of this Southside hamlet made a hard decision. They welcomed into their midst the Mecklenburg Correctional Center, a sallow-trimmed building filled with murderers and rapists that promised to pump jobs and revenue back into the ailing economy.
For three decades, that decision buoyed Boydton, a blue-collar community so proud of its scrappiness that U.S. News and World Report once called it: “A Small Town That Refuses to Die.”
But as the town prepared for its 200th anniversary in February, it was blindsided by news the state planned to shutter the prison, which houses about 730 inmates.
Boydton ultimately will lose 20 percent of its annual budget — revenue that comes from providing sewer services to the prison — and the area is poised to lose 300 jobs. Officials fear they will have to lay off most of the town’s workers, including its only police officer; triple some water rates; and cut back on trash pickups. More than $1.5 million in grants are in jeopardy. If the town does not get help from the state, it could go bankrupt and be dissolved.
Boydton’s bicentennial could turn into its wake.
“They call Boydton a little Mayberry – and that’s what it is,” said Alan Panther, who has lived in the town of about 480 all his life and works at the prison. “We were really trying to make a comeback. All that work is going to go down the drain.”
The story of Boydton is playing out in small towns across Virginia and around the nation. Many depressed rural communities welcomed prisons in recent decades as sources of jobs and revenue — The Post dubbed it “salvation through incarceration.”
But budget woes and moves to jail fewer nonviolent offenders are leading states to mothball dozens of correctional facilities — an unexpected blow for communities already suffering from the recession. In 2o10, the overall U.S. prison population declined for the first time in four decades to 1.6 million and at least 13 states closed prisons. Virginia alone has closed 10, in addition to Mecklenburg, since 2009.
Many in towns that saw factories go overseas and farms wither never imagined a prison could disappear too. The jobs were supposed to be recession proof. After all, it was government work and there was always more bad guys to lock up. They built their lives and communities around that belief.
Now they are watching their last economic lifelines go away and wondering: How will we survive?
‘You could hear a pin drop’
Two weeks before Christmas, word spread among the tightknit group of prison workers that there would be an emergency meeting. About 100 correctional officers and other employees filed into the prisoners’ visiting room the night of Dec. 12 with no idea what was to come.
“ ‘I’m going to cut right to the chase. Because of cutbacks we are closing the facility,’ ” Panther recalled a state corrections official announcing. “It was a shock. You could hear a pin drop in the room.”
The prison sits on a bluff, a short drive and a world away from Boydton’s picturesque downtown with its quaint storefronts and whitewashed, 1830s courthouse.
Opened in 1976, the prison is a collection of institutional brown buildings surrounded by razor wire. At one time, it housed death row and it was dubbed a “monument to failure.”
For Boydton, it was anything but that. The prison is now the fifth-largest employer in Mecklenburg and it pays Boydton $240,000 a year for sewage services. Guards eat lunch at the local watering hole, the Copper Kettle, and visitors stop by the Dollar General.
The prison’s importance to the town was cemented in the last decade as Mecklenburg saw the twin pillars of its economy crumble: manufacturing and tobacco. A Burlington Industries textile mill and Russell Stover Candy plant closed, leaving more than 3,500 out of work, and health concerns about cigarettes drove a long slide in tobacco farming.
Marilyn Boyd has found herself at the center of Mecklenburg’s declining fortunes. She worked at Burlington Industries for 15 years and was laid off when its mill closed in 2002. She had planned to retire there.
Boyd sought work at the prison because it seemed a safe harbor in a county that has one of Virginia’s highest unemployment rates — 8.8 percent. She had hoped to retire there, too.
But after 35 years of operation, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell announced the prison would close in May. Officials said Pennsylvania triggered the closure by deciding to remove about 1,000 prisoners housed under contract in Virginia.
Virginia prisoners will move to Chatham’s Green Rock prison, a newer facility where officials said they could be held more cheaply. But the future for workers is less certain.