Proposal to end for-profit prison management fails in Virginia Senate

By: - January 15, 2021 3:14 pm

(Alex Potemkin/Getty Images)

A proposal to bring Virginia’s only privately operated prison under state management failed in the General Assembly on Friday when it was voted down by members of the Senate’s Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee.

The decision means GEO Group, a publicly traded corporation based in Florida, will likely continue to oversee the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Brunswick County, where advocates and some lawmakers worried persistent staffing shortages have jeopardized inmate safety.

“They do not hold up their end of the contract as far as medical, dental,” said Franchesca Hylton, who told lawmakers during a hearing on the legislation that her husband is an inmate at the facility and was not getting proper care for his heart condition. “There’s a lot of stuff going on at that facility that shouldn’t be.”

The company has been fined at least $700,000 by the Virginia Department of Corrections since 2018 for failing to maintain contractually agreed upon staffing levels, according to department records.

Some lawmakers on the panel who opposed the measure said they recognized there have been problems at the facility, but questioned whether the Department of Corrections would do a better job managing it than GEO, noting that the state itself contracts out medical care in many facilities, an arrangement that in one facility has led to ongoing oversight by a federal judge following a string of inmate deaths.

“The Department of Corrections did not come out of the pandemic looking rosy, from what I heard,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, one of five Democrats who joined the legislative panel’s six GOP members in opposing the measure.

Morrissey noted that the legislation would continue to allow the department to outsource inmate medical care and other prison services like phone systems and commissaries.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said that if the state thinks GEO is understaffing the facility, it should change its contract with the company.

A lobbyist for GEO, McGuireWoods’ Kassie Schroth, made a similar argument, telling lawmakers it didn’t make sense to target the company when it’s one of dozens of private contractors used by the states. “Everything GEO does as a service provider is pursuant to our contract,” she said. “We’re bound by DOC’s policies.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, argued the legislation would address immediate issues specific to Lawrenceville, bringing it up to state standards by increasing staffing by 93 employees.

“In order to lower operating costs, private prisons hire fewer employees and pay and train them less than state employees,” he said, citing a study conducted at lawmakers’ request that found employees at the prison are paid thousands less per year than state-employed workers.

Because the state pays its employees more than GEO and hires more of them, the Department of Corrections estimated it would cost an additional $9 million per year to operate the facility.

Since at least 2018, the facility has struggled to maintain staffing levels, according to records obtained from the Department of Corrections by opponents of the for-profit prison industry. The Mercury independently reviewed the records, which show the problem peaked early in the pandemic last year, when $133,000 was deducted from GEO’s more than $2 million monthly management fee.

Vacancies rose again in July, prompting DOC Director Harold Clarke to write a letter to GEO asking them to submit a plan to address the problem. “I remind you that the contract requires that all posts be manned on all shifts regardless of vacancies,” he wrote.

A representative of GEO, whose name is redacted, blamed the issues on the spread of COVID-19. “We are very thankful for your patience in allowing us to manage through the brief period of challenge caused by the pandemic,” the employee wrote.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.