By Howard Greninger/Tribune-Star

Tuesday marked the dedication of the 111th federal facility for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons with a new 719,000-square-foot U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute.

The maximum-security facility was dedicated 65 years after the first U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, dedicated on Oct. 4, 1940. The two penitentiaries, along with a minimum security camp, now create a Federal Correctional Complex, on 1,145 acres about two miles south of Honey Creek Mall.

"Our job is to ensure the safety of our staff and the public and I believe we have done this" with the new penitentiary, said Warden Mark A. Bezy. Tuesday also marked Bezy's 54th birthday, with his entire family present for the dedication before 500 people.

The new maximum-security penitentiary, which contains 768 cells in general housing and 240 cells in special housing, is expected to house inmates in the next couple of weeks, said Harley G. Lappin, a former warden in Terre Haute and now director of the Bureau of Prisons. Lappin served in the existing penitentiary during the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001.

The existing penitentiary will serve as a medium-security facility and will undergo a major remodeling, pending federal funding, Lappin said. Terre Haute will continue to be the sole location in the federal system to house inmates on death row and the only location where those inmates will be executed, Lappin said.

"We believe this is a much better design. The old design served us well, but we are seeing greater visibility and more contact with inmates [in the new design]. All around, we think safety and security is much more enhanced with this design than the old design," Lappin said.

Lappin said the new facility will have a significant economic impact on Terre Haute.

"Typically to run a facility like this it is about $30 million to $33 million per year in salaries and benefits and operating costs and a great deal of that obviously goes to staff. Those people will spend money in the community, so it should have a huge impact," Lappin said.

The penitentiary will employ about 745 staff members. Correctional officers start at $35,000 a year, with the average salary at $45,000, plus benefits, said Bezy said.

"It is not an easy job, it's a challenging job," Lappin said. "We are thrilled with the level and the quality of employees we bring on board here in Terre Haute and that's one of the reasons we thought this was the right place to build."

Community leaders in 2001 helped bring the new penitentiary to Terre Haute and now are encouraging the development of an additional facility.

"Right now there is no discussion of another institution at this location. It is all contingent on the growth of the Bureau of Prisons. We have a number of facilities in our inventory and if we see an increase in population projections, we then look to see if we need to add to our inventory," Lappin said.

In 1980, the federal system had about 28,000 inmates and 38 facilities. In 1990, that increased to 58,000 inmates at 62 facilities. This year, there are 182,000 inmates. Lappin will dedicate two more federal penitentiaries this year, bringing the total federal facilities to 113.

Judy Anderson, former Terre Haute mayor, worked with community leaders nearly four years ago to bring in the new prison. "The first time we went to Washington, D.C., the Bureau of Prisons said we were the first community which came to thank them for having a facility in their community and the first community to ever ask to have a new one," Anderson said. "We knew this was economic development, that this was good jobs and good benefits and knew what the federal prison gave back to the community."

Mayor Kevin Burke said the new penitentiary "represents a continued partnership between the city and the Bureau of Prisons. It is another example of what Terre Haute and the community of Terre Haute can do well. This is a significantly technical task in housing and rehabilitating inmates. Terre Haute has proven to do that well.

"It is not the type of growth industry you want to put on a billboard, but it is a necessity. We're proud of that. Once again it shows that if you need something difficult done well, Terre Haute is the place to do that," Burke said.

Burke said if the opportunity presents itself for an additional federal facility in Terre Haute, "I would certainly hope our track record of doing this well would provide that for us. It provides good jobs and benefits and the opportunity for [the penitentiary] to be supported by other entities."

Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.

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