- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2000

JARRATT, Va. This small peanut-growing town just north of the North Carolina border is home to four churches, a few old stores, a bank and a macabre, spine-chilling place folks don't like to talk about the Greensville Correctional Center, home to the state's execution chamber.
Living at ground zero in the death-penalty debate has tarnished the town's image, Mayor Alton Owen believes. So he is fighting back. He has retained a public relations specialist from nearby Emporia to promote Jarratt and defend its 550 or so residents, who have been portrayed in Virginia newspapers as aloof, insensitive and ignorant to the death-penalty issue, Mr. Owen said.
Three men have died by lethal injection at the 1,125-acre prison this year, along with Michael D. Clagett, who opted for the electric chair July 6. Sixty-six have been put to death in Jarratt since the facility opened in 1990.
"There's an awful lot more to life here than death," said public relations specialist Carla Harris, who was ready with a full cache of quotables when a reporter arrived this week for a visit.
Mrs. Harris, who sent out e-mail messages and press releases inviting regional media outlets to town, had a handful of Jarratt's most prominent residents assembled for a tour. The guide herself was neatly coifed and wore a dress.
She used words like "God-fearing," "proud," and "Southern gentility" as she described the demographics, and handed out small gift bags containing shoe polish, peanuts and a pen from the mayor's Ford dealership.
Peanuts grow 2,800 pounds to the acre in this Southside hamlet. Two processing plants employ more than 1,000 workers and Northerners gather here each winter to hunt bobcat, fox and turkey.
There's more to talk about than death. Residents boast about the revamped water and sewer system and low property taxes. The 25-member Fire Department is all volunteer and works out of a new firehouse.
Folks come from neighboring "settlements" to buy banana pudding ice cream from Hoagy's Market. One woman once drove 20 miles out of her way to buy some for her dying brother.
And when it snows, farmers often plow the roads before the state sends out its crews. The average age is 43 and unemployment is hovering at about 3 percent.
The prison employs about 1,000 correctional officers and other staff. Another 700 work for Boar's Head Provisions, a gourmet food company that packages deli meats and other products.
About 400 work for Georgia Pacific, which makes paper towels and hygiene products. Another 500 work for small businesses. Construction is under way on a wood-processing plant, sure to employ hundreds more.
"We and our success stories are here every day, not just when there is an execution," Mr. Owen said.
The town, straddling Sussex and Greensville counties, was founded in the late 1800s by the Jarratt family, whose descendants still live in the area.
A sign in the middle of town reveals Jarratt's Civil War history. On May 8, 1864, Union Brig. Gen. August V. Koutz burned the train depot called Jarratt Station to cut off the Confederate supply route from Petersburg, Va., to Weldon, N.C.
The pace is admittedly slow in town, where failure to wave to the neighbors is considered disrespectful. It is not uncommon for the zoning commissioner to be a Town Council member and volunteer firefighter.
Driving past St. James Church of God in Christ, one tour member, J.L. Grant Jr., pointed out that he worked there when it was a grocery store years earlier.
Mr. Grant, 77, who is starting his 37th year on the six-member council, named the families who live in the brick homes along the residential streets. He seemed to have a story about every building, from his days as deacon to his founding of the Jarratt Peanut Co. about 20 years ago.
"I belong to everything but the woman's club," said Mr. Grant, his bony legs poking out from a pair of shorts and sneakers.
About three-quarters of the population have lived in Jarratt all their lives. The rest, like Brit Flynn, 48, came in search of peace and quiet.
Mr. Flynn moved to Southside Virginia from northern New Jersey and bought Jarratt Hardware in 1984.
"If you've ever been up there, you know why I left," he said, leaning back in a chair in his office, hands behind his head.
"I'll meet four cars in six miles here. In New Jersey, before you get out of the driveway you have to wait for 25 to go by."
Mr. Flynn, who intends to double his retail space next year, enjoys saying that he owns Jarratt Hardware on Jarratt Avenue in Jarratt.
He will deliver a 15-cent part in the middle of the night if it means restoring a family's drinking water. He will send his son Roy, 16, out to the parking lot to attach a part to an elderly woman's watering can.
"As long as the business continues to grow and I can eat, I'll stay here," Mr. Flynn said.
Residents of Jarratt insist they are not consumed by the prison and its death chamber.
Some made a visit to check out the Greensville Correctional Center when it opened. Many did not.
"It doesn't bother me [having the prison nearby]. It may bother someone," said Lidie Cottee, 50, a clerk at Hoagy's Market.
Her only contact with the prison, she said, is talking to the correctional officers who pass through the shop.
Said Charles Creech, 69: "Nobody even thinks about it being here."
The townspeople may be accustomed to the prison, but its massive presence looms eerily at the end of its own long, wooded road.
All 1,776 cells and support buildings are contained within a double-fence perimeter that is monitored by armed guards in six towers. The prison complex holds 3,300 inmates and includes an 82-bed mental health unit.
Willie Nunnally, 69, a council member and one of the oldest firefighters in town, joked about the time he accidentally was locked behind the electronically activated bars during a prison tour.
"We looked forward to [seeing the prison] and enjoyed the tour," he said.
Ric Creech, 33, who paints Civil War miniatures in the home he shares with his father and family, recalled visiting the prison when a convict was executed a few years ago.
As he stood outside the perimeter fence near protesters and bystanders, he noticed a group of schoolchildren playing with an empty Pepsi jug. The jug ended up in the middle of a prayer circle, and the children pushed past the crowd to retrieve it.
"There was very little respect," he said, speaking in a room surrounded by his tiny figurines and battle scenes.
He noted that his neighbors are often unaware of executions until news trucks come into town.
"It's so [normal] that people don't pay attention any more," he said.
While some inhabitants have an anecdote about the prison, many do not. Greensville Correctional Center attracts employees mostly from neighboring villages in Virginia and North Carolina.
Some in Jarratt recall hearing sirens during drills. They sometimes see inmates cutting grass or carrying out utility work in town.
"From a spiritual standpoint, taking life isn't right. From a moral standpoint, these are the rules. We accept the laws that are passed down from Washington, D.C.," said William Britt, 40, a retired corrections employee and member of Jarratt's electoral board.
To the local leaders, the prison is a source of pride. It is heralded as a provider of jobs and is often referred to as the "facility that's carrying out justice."
The prison warden agrees.
"Why should anybody have to take a bad rap for being a valuable member in society … for carrying out the will of the people?" asked Warden David A. Garraghty.
"I'd rather have a murderer locked up in a prison in my community than living next to me in my community," he said, sitting in his office, wearing cowboy boots. "People should look at Jarratt and say 'Thank you.' "
Mr. Garraghty, a straight-talking resident of Jarratt, is a strong critic of the press, particularly stories he says sensationalize and demoralize the prison and its employees.
The presence of the prison helps keep crime low, and it is a myth that property values drop wherever a prison is built, he said.
"Hype is going to be whatever hype wants to be in the media," he said. "The fact is, this area's going to grow."

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