Why is West Virginia the federal prison capital of the country?

Senator Robert Byrd’s passion for pork was legendary, and his love for prison-flavored pork helped fuel the record breaking growth in the federal prison population.

by Peter Wagner, June 10, 2014

While preparing our report Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity, we discovered something interesting: West Virginia has more federal prison cells per capita than any other state. In fact, there are more people incarcerated in federal prisons in the state than are incarcerated in state and local jails combined.

Almost one out of every 200 people in the state is locked up in a federal prison, a rate more than seven times higher than the country as a whole. Of course, this doesn’t meant that West Virginians violate federal law more than other states, but it does mean that that state has more federal prisons than anywhere else. (And given the fact that West Virginia is one of the whitest states in the country, it certainly makes a difference to the demographics reported in the census.)

So why does West Virginia have so many federal prisons? Because until 2010, the senior senator on the U.S. Senate’s appropriation’s committee was West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. As the longest serving U.S. Senator in history — not to mention multi-term Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations — Byrd was powerful, and he focused his political clout on bringing as much federal money in to West Virginia as he could.

Senator Byrd’s passion for pork was legendary and his love for prison-flavored pork helped fuel the record breaking growth in the federal prison population over the last three decades. That’s because prison is no exception to the saying “if you build it, they will come.”

Now, it would be fair to wonder if Senator Byrd wasn’t just advocating for his state to receive federal prison money that was already earmarked to be spent somewhere. Unfortunately, the historical record makes it clear that support from the longest serving U.S. Senator in history can make things happen that wouldn’t otherwise, such as the opening of brand new FCI McDowell prison despite the Bush administration’s attempts to cut it from the budget.

Source: Jake Stump, “Byrd hopes the $126 million he secured to run prisons is really secure” Charleston Daily Mail, July 12, 2007.

Peter Wagner is Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

One response:

  1. […] from. Still, as Prison Policy Initiative notes, “State politics certainly influence whether and where federal prisons are built,” and it’s worth knowing which states decide to open their […]

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