Virginia considers 2 jail firms with sketchy pasts

Staff-youth sex misconduct found at 1

RICHMOND — Virginia is considering privatizing its sole facility fully devoted to treating sexually violent predators, but the two companies in the running have a history of multimillion-dollar legal settlements and illicit behavior that includes a charge of “deliberate indifference” to sexual misconduct between staff and youths at a facility.

The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services is evaluating proposals from private prison-operating companies GEO Care Inc. and Liberty Healthcare Corp. to take over the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation in Burkeville because of an increase in the number of offenders and concerns about costs.

GEO, a subsidiary of the Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group Inc., last year sent the state an unsolicited proposal to consider privatization of the center, a psychiatric treatment facility for sex offenders who have served their prison sentences. Liberty, based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., submitted one after the state began reviewing the GEO proposal.

Meghan McGuire, a spokeswoman with the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said Virginia is “taking a comprehensive look at the private companies who proposed to run [the rehabilitation center] as we determine whether privatization of the program is the right fit for Virginia.”

Despite a long history of operating such facilities, the two companies have dubious records in other states.

The U.S. Department of Justice in March released a scathing report after an inquiry into the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, previously run by GEO. The state recently announced that it is seeking new management for Walnut Grove, as well as two other private prisons run by GEO.

The Justice Department report concluded that the state was violating the rights of the youths incarcerated in the facility and found “deliberate indifference” to high incidences of sexual misconduct between youths and staff. A consent decree entered in March removed everyone younger than 17 from the facility and stipulated that no youths could be placed in solitary confinement in the state.

Pablo Paez, a spokesman for GEO, declined to comment on the investigation into the facility but pointed out that GEO did not assume management of it until late 2010 and has since made “significant improvements.” Mental health and medical staffs at the facility are employed by contract and are not GEO or state employees.

Troubled histories

GEO settled for $3 million in 2010 after a class-action lawsuit was filed in 2008 alleging unconstitutional strip searches at a Pennsylvania jail. The family of an inmate beaten to death at a GEO-run facility in Texas sued in 2006, and was awarded about $50 million by a jury, though the case ultimately was settled out of court.

“They understaff, they underpay, there’s high turnover,” said Ken Kopczynski, executive director of the Private Corrections Working Group, which serves to provide information about problems of prison privatization. “It’s a business model - they expect a certain amount of suits, they expect a certain amount of fines.”

GEO operates Virginia’s one private prison - the 1,500-bed Lawrenceville Correctional Center.

Liberty has had ignominious incidents of its own.

A massive investigation and report from Florida’s Department of Children and Families office of inspector general uncovered an incident at the Florida Civil Commitment Center - then run by Liberty - in 2004.

A whistleblower investigation found that the facility’s safety director and safety manager erased or destroyed video evidence after a resident - placed in solitary confinement after threatening to burn a female worker - was then inexplicably allowed to roam the building, after which he climbed onto the roof and jumped off.

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