Potential overdoses, death at privately run Lawrenceville prison spur state investigation

By: - August 10, 2022 2:40 pm

(Alex Potemkin/Getty Images)

The Virginia Department of Corrections is investigating a rash of potential overdoses and a death at the privately run Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Brunswick County. 

Christopher Ferreira, a spokesperson for The GEO Group, the prison operator, confirmed Wednesday that one inmate died Aug. 6 after prison staff “observed several inmates who appeared to be lethargic and unresponsive.” 

“Medical assistance was immediately called and the affected inmates were administered emergency care to stabilize their condition before being transported to the local hospital as a precautionary measure,” he wrote in an email.

Ferreira said the matter “is currently under investigation by the Virginia Department of Corrections.” 

“GEO considers the health and safety of those entrusted to our care to be our primary mission and we will take any and all necessary steps to ensure that the circumstances surrounding this tragic situation are promptly and thoroughly addressed,” he said.

The apparent overdoses were first publicly flagged Tuesday night by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit that advocates for racial, social and economic justice. 

King Salim Khalfani, a criminal justice reform organizer with the center, said he was told nearly a dozen inmates suffered overdoses over the last few days.

“This is an ongoing problem throughout the years,” said Khalfani. 

Details of the recent incident have been scarce. Asked about the reports by Virginia Interfaith, Virginia Department of Corrections Director of Communications Benjamin Jarvela referred the Mercury to the GEO Group. 

After the GEO Group confirmed the Department of Corrections was investigating the incident, Jarvela said the agency had “no comment on any active investigations.” 

Neither the GEO Group nor the Department of Corrections answered questions about what kind of drugs may have been involved in any overdoses, how those drugs got into the facility and how many inmates were affected.

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The Lawrenceville Correctional Center is Virginia’s only privately run prison and has sparked debate among legislators in recent years. In 2021, Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, proposed legislation to bring the facility under state management, but the bill was defeated in committee.

GEO Group has been fined more than $700,000 by DOC since 2018 for failing to maintain staffing levels required under its contract with the state.

In 2020, the General Assembly ordered the agency to study the costs of the state terminating its contract with GEO and assuming management of Lawrenceville. The current contract was awarded in July 2018 is scheduled to expire July 1, 2023, although there are annual options to renew the contract for an additional 10 years.

That study found that transferring management to the state would increase the facility’s operating costs by $9.3 million above current spending levels, primarily because the Department of Corrections employs more staff and pays those staff more than the private operator. Under GEO Group, the per capita cost per day at Lawrenceville was $51.55, “nearly 49 percent lower than comparable VADOC facilities.” 

However, the study noted, “even at this increased cost, Lawrenceville would still be significantly less expensive to operate than other VADOC Level 3 (medium security) facilities.” 

Virginia Interfaith on Tuesday urged the Virginia Department of Corrections to cancel its contract with GEO and take over management of Lawrenceville, citing “a documented pattern of drug overdoses and deaths” at the facility, as well as other problems. The group said it intends to release a report on violations at the facility at the end of the month. 

Khalfani said he has “been getting complaints for years” about Lawrenceville and contended that many problems are linked to allowing a private operator to run a prison for profit. 

“It just doesn’t seem right,” he said. “Corrections isn’t a for-profit industry.” 


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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.