Sugar Grove may become minimum-security prison

By Joan Ashley

Staff Writer

SUGAR GROVE – The state Division of Corrections (DOC) is evaluating the Sugar Grove Navy Base, scheduled to close next year, as a minimum-security facility for low risk inmates, Sen. Clark S. Barnes, R-11th District, said.

“This is a big deal considering the jobs it could bring to the county and surrounding counties,” said Barnes, a member of a Legislative joint oversight committee for the Regional Jail and Corrections Facility Authority.

Barnes spoke to DOC Commissioner Jim Rubenstein two years ago about the possibility of converting the Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC) Navy Base to a DOC facility.

“Nothing was sure then and nothing was arranged at the time,” Barnes said.

Last month DOC facility engineers, working with base personnel, investigated how the base could be converted and reported the information back to Rubenstein.

Last month DOC facility engineers, working with base personnel, investigated how the base could be converted and reported the information back to Rubenstein.

Last Wednesday, Rubenstein, with his chief of staff, top level assistants, and legal counsel met with local elected officials, including Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, Allen Evans, R-Grant, Barnes, Pendleton County Commissioners Carl Hevener, Gene McConnell and Randy Roberson; and Bill Hartman, chairman of the Pendleton County Economic and Community Development Authority at the Navy Base.

“Commissioner Rubenstein was very pleased – in fact, wowed – by the facility,” said Lawrence Messina, communications director for the Department of Military Affairs-Public Safety.

“The DOC officials were very impressed with the base and the good condition it is in, considering it is almost 50 years old – that is really a good testimony to the people who work to take such good care of it,” McConnell said.

Barnes stated the DOC has a problem in that approximately 800 longterm inmates are currently being housed in regional jails which replaced the county jails and are considered facilities for short term sentences. Regional jail inmate expenses are paid for by the counties. Those DOC inmates housed temporarily in the regional facilities have their expenses paid by the DOC.

More than 70 percent of DOC prisoners are incarcerated for “drug-related” incidents and the DOC facilities offer drug rehabilitation services as well as vocational technical education. Both programs reduce recidivism, by preparing inmates for their return to society, and are not available in regional jails.

“That adds to the importance of us transferring these prisoners to DOC facilities,” Barnes said.

The lower base of the Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC), Sugar Grove is due to be phased out by the National Security Agency (NSA) by October 2015.

The base, manned by 192 active duty personnel, employs 122

civilians.

The phase-out or downsizing of the Navy presence at NIOC will adversely affect most of Pendleton County, in local business, emergency services, service organizations, churches and schools. It will have a huge impact including the local jobs and money that Naval personnel bring into the community, local leaders have stated.

The possible loss of more than 300-plus good-paying jobs “would be devastating during the best of times,” but in the current economic climate there is no possibility of “absorbing these displaced workers” in this or any other close county, Commissioner Carl Hevener stated.

Superintendent of Education Doug Lambert has said the 51 Navy-connected students at Brandywine Elementary School, nearest to the base, total 38.64 percent of that student body. Throughout the school system, 10.06 percent of the students have parents employed at the base.

If the base would close down completely before being taken over by another entity it would cost more than $18 million and lose a $140 million asset. Base upkeep runs $4-5 million a year.

Department of Defense and other federal entities have declined taking over the base. The next phase of closure falls to Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which has a first right of refusal for the next 45 days, Barnes said.

“If HUD turns it down the state has the next crack at it. I see a low-risk class of minimum security inmates with a minimum change to the Navy facility,” said Barnes who is from Randolph County and lives near Huttonsville Correctional Center.

“Even being the largest facility in West Virginia, it has not changed the atmosphere or culture of Huttonsville or the other small towns around it,” Barnes said.

“However, there are no plans to convert Sugar Grove to a facility like Huttonsville. Our goal is to have a facility which continues to support the surrounding community and county and counties with employment, fire and rescue services and the ability to provide work crews to help with special projects,” Barnes stated.

“It will help the county with civil service state jobs which will offer competitive pay and some of the best benefits in the country,” Barnes added.

McConnell is pleased that both the DOC and KVC, a career college, are looking at the base.

“Our county was faced with the potential of the base closing down and now we have the possibility of two viable candidates to keep it open. This would be an economic benefit not only to us, but, since our county population couldn’t sustain this facility alone, it would be looking regionally to provide enough candidates for jobs,” said McConnell, who cautioned there’s the potential for the DOC facilty to be created, but it is not a sure thing.

Public relations are very important, Barnes said.

“The DOC wants discussion of this to be very open and public,” he said. “We want public input, want the transition to be as open and transparent as we can possibly make it and address the concerns of every citizen.”