Virginia considers private prison contract renewal despite $4.3 million in breaches

By: - April 26, 2023 12:04 am

Lawrenceville Correctional Center, Virginia’s only privately run prison, in Brunswick County, Virginia. (JW Caterine / For Virginia Mercury

As Virginia weighs whether to renew its contract with GEO Group to run the Lawrenceville Correctional Center, the state’s only privately operated prison, records show persistent staffing shortages at the facility have cost the company $4.3 million since August 2018. 

Under GEO’s current contract, which ends July 31, the Virginia Department of Corrections can dock the payments it makes to the company to run the prison whenever GEO breaches a minimum level of staffing at the prison. According to intradepartmental memos obtained by the Mercury, between August 2018 and October 2022, VADOC deducted $3.7 million from payments to the operator for non-medical staff shortages and over $605,000 for medical staff shortages.

“The Department is committed to effectively managing all contracts and is always prepared to explore options that will best serve the interest of the Commonwealth,” VADOC spokeswoman Carla Miles said in an email in response to a question about whether Virginia intends to renew its contract with GEO Group. “At this time, we continue to be engaged in that process.”

Lawrenceville was opened in 1998 as Virginia’s first privately run prison, and GEO has managed the medium-security facility since 2003. The current contract, which went into effect Aug. 1, 2018, lasts five years with the option for the state to renew annually for an additional 10 years. 

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

GEO Group’s management of Lawrenceville has sparked debate in the General Assembly. During the 2021 legislative session, Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, sponsored a bill that would have prohibited the state from contracting with private prison operators, but it failed to move out of committee. 

“If the state is going to take someone’s liberty away and incarcerate them, then we have a direct responsibility to supervise and see that they are in a safe situation where rehabilitation is being worked on, not where we’re just trying to nickel and dime and warehouse them in the most profitable way,” Ebbin told the Mercury.

GEO Group declined an interview request for this story, but a spokesperson told the Mercury that “all correctional facilities in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and across the country, are facing similar staffing challenges.” 

“While we remain focused on addressing these challenges, we are committed to taking all necessary steps, including the authorized use of overtime, to adhere to daily staffing requirements, which are designed to ensure the safety of the facility and those in our care,” the statement continued.

People who have been imprisoned at Lawrenceville, however, say that their safety has suffered from the frequent staff shortages.

Hilary Robinson said her husband Travis, a former Lawrenceville inmate, was stabbed five times and beaten by other inmates at the facility on July 18, 2020, when trying to break up a fight. She said she is convinced that if more staff had been present, her husband would not have been as badly injured as he was. (GEO Group referred questions about the incident to the Department of Corrections, which referred questions to GEO Group.) 

“That’s why [inmates] call it ‘Las Vegas,’ because they can do whatever they want,” she said. “The staff isn’t there to regulate or anything like that. The staff doesn’t care; they just want to survive it too.”

Documents show top-ranking officials within the department have expressed concern about staffing shortages at Lawrenceville. 

In a letter dated July 27, 2020, VADOC Director Harold Clarke wrote GEO that “on July 22, 2020, I am told that there were 16 security vacancies, 19 in training, 10 on administrative leave, 7 on [Family Medical Leave Act]/Medical Leave, 6 out for COVID, and 4 waiting test result.” 

“Although we certainly understand the issues that COVID-19 is causing everyone, this vacancy rate could become worrisome if it continues to increase,” he continued.

In response, a GEO spokesperson in a letter claimed that the shortages were specific to the COVID crisis, and that as of August 2020, staffing was “at historically high levels.” However, intradepartmental memos show the deductions GEO faced for shortages in August 2020 — over $26,000 of damages for 214 days’ worth of shortages for non-medical staff and 43 hours for medical staff — were higher than those it faced in some previous months. 

The staffing problem appears to have escalated since then, with 76% of the $4.3 million in total damages being deducted by the state linked to shortages between October 2021 and October 2022.

The memos share more details about medical staff shortages. GEO Group has faced deductions at different times for vacancies among physicians and physicians’ assistants, as well as dentists and dental assistants. Between May 2019 and August 2019, there was no psychiatrist on staff.

Nursing staff suffered the most from chronic vacancies. Shortages were so severe that GEO faced deductions for failing to staff enough licensed practical nurses in virtually every month between August 2018 and October 2022. Registered nurses were also regularly understaffed. In total, the state deducted costs for a combined 8,929 hours of shortages for both positions.

Del. Irene Shin, D-Fairfax, who toured Lawrenceville last September during a lockdown, said inmates have told her that GEO’s health care was subpar compared to that at state-run facilities. 

“At Lawrenceville, a number of those folks told us that they were denied health care over and over in spite of acute pain and illnesses, which led to worsened health conditions,” she said.

Franchesca Hylton, the wife of former inmate Robert Hylton, said that while her husband had been told by his doctor that he needed to see a cardiologist annually, he lost such access after being transferred to Lawrenceville in 2016. For the next four years, he experienced seizures that led to injuries, including a broken rib. Franchesca Hylton advocated on his behalf to get him transferred to a state-run facility in 2020. 

“With the state facilities, it’s still a headache to get them to do some things,” she said. “But with GEO it was really a headache.”

Shawn Weneta of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, a former inmate of Lawrenceville himself, said GEO Group has been allowed to continue operating the prison in spite of staffing shortages because it saves the state money. 

“It’s going to cost a whole lot more to have the facility under state control than to have GEO Group run it,” he said. 

Morally, however, Weneta said the state has an obligation to take back management of the prison, which has been racked by overdoses under GEO. According to local emergency call records from Brunswick County, there were a total of 39 “Overdose / Poisoning” incidents at the prison between January 2021 and May 2022. One death occurred last August. 

“The disappointing thing is that [a state takeover] could be done easily. We don’t need the legislature to act,” Weneta said. “The executive can act, the Secretary of Public Safety can act.”

A 2020 VADOC study estimated a state takeover would raise Lawrenceville’s operating costs by $9.3 million, mainly to pay for “an increase of 93 correctional officers needed to provide adequate relief staffing and to address operational security needs.” 

VADOC can terminate the contract at any time, and a document dated June 19, 2019, and signed by Lawrenceville administrators lays out “a detailed plan to implement in the event of a contract termination and assumption of control of this facility by the Virginia Department of Corrections.” 

Jake Petzold, a spokesperson for Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Bob Mosier, said no decisions had been made as far as renewing the contract.

Quadaire Patterson, a current inmate at Lawrenceville, told his fiance Santia Nance over the phone last week that while conditions at the prison had improved since last year, he still believes the private operators are profiting at the expense of the lives of those incarcerated there. 

“The state being able to outsource its own economic responsibility is a big negative when it comes to justice,” he said on the call.

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JW Caterine
JW Caterine

JW Caterine is an independent journalist and writer from Poquoson now living in Williamsburg. He started his reporting career in Austin, Texas, where he covered housing, education and the environment for the Austin Monitor and Austin Chronicle. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he's glad to be back at his stomping ground. Contact him at [email protected]

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