- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2012

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.

In 2006, Florida chose GEO to take the reins away from Liberty, and the company opened a 720-bed facility in 2009. But the state has consistently had to subsidize the company because the number of residents hasn’t increased as quickly as projected because of changes in the state’s civil commitment process.

Officials with GEO Group and Liberty said it was not their policy to comment on ongoing procurement processes or proposals they submit before they become a matter of public record.

All told, between 2004 and 2010, GEO contributed more than $100,000 to state politicians and groups in Virginia, including more than $30,000 to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s gubernatorial and attorney general campaigns. Liberty contributed a total of $5,500 to various politicians in 2002.

Ms. McGuire said the department is examining the pluses and minuses of the two companies.

“We are looking into their successes and problems in other states as well as scrutinizing their responses to the very thorough request for submission we developed,” she said.

Mixed bag

Despite their issues, the companies are still accredited, and may be able to help Virginia ameliorate its looming overcrowding issues.

Savings for the state from fully privatizing the facility, if any, are yet to be determined, Ms. McGuire said, adding that the agency cannot comment on the proposals until negotiations are finished. Both companies claim they can double the 300-bed capacity at the facility at no additional capital cost to the state. The population at the center, currently around 280, is expected to hit 450 by 2014, and it costs the state about $91,000 per prisoner a year.

Florida staff has reported that privatizing the facility has made its program more cost-effective. It costs the state about $38,300 per patient annually at the GEO-run facility.

Virginia expects its cost per patient to decline to about $62,000 by 2015 as its population jumps as a result of a plan to house two occupants instead of one to a room, called double-bunking. The Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation is retrofitting the facility to prepare for potential double-bunking. Some residents have sent letters to Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II saying they will sue the state if they are double-bunked.

GEO has delivered sex-offender treatment consistent with Practice Standards and Guidelines for the Treatment of Adult Male Sexual Abusers of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, according to the unsolicited proposal it sent to Virginia.

Liberty told Virginia officials in its proposal that it is planning to partner with Gilbane Development Co. and the McLean-based Davis Carter Scott architectural firm to improve the facility. Gilbane developed the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, and Davis Carter Scott designed it.

But any potential gaps, loopholes or cost increases when housing the most violent of sexual predators is a tough sell to the public, Mr. Kopczynski said.

“It’s a standard business model - you get away with what you can get away with,” he said. “They’re there to make a profit. John and Jane Q. Public don’t care about inmates.”

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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