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Shortcomings Cited at Virginia’s Civil Commitment Facility

by Matt Clarke

The almost two-year-old, $62-million maximum-security Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation (VCBR) is still having start-up problems. Located in rural Nottoway County on 28 acres and opened in February 2008, VCBR is unable to retain staff and offers little in the way of rehabilitative treatment. The facility, which was expanded to 300 beds in September 2008, houses sex offenders who have been civilly committed after completing their prison sentences.

The Inspector General for the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services found that VCBR lost around half its staff annually in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. As of February 2009 the facility had 190 employees and 59 staff openings – a 24% vacancy rate.

In a March 2009 report the Inspector General said “active treatment” at VCBR was “much lower than desirable for an effective treatment program,” with residents receiving an average of just 6.6 hours of treatment each week. No vocational programs or jobs were available at the facility. The report noted that only two residents had been conditionally released from VCBR since 2004, when the facility was at a temporary location in Petersburg. A survey found that 64% of staff did not feel safe while working at VCBR.

In an earlier report, one staff member described an “identity issue” in that the residents and some staff viewed the razor-wire surrounded facility as a prison and residents as prisoners rather than civilly-committed patients in need of treatment. Three-quarters of the staff interviewed by the Inspector General in 2007 expressed doubts about any resident ever being released: “Many of the comments made by staff were flatly negative, denying any possibility of eventual successful treatment.”

Mental health department spokesman Meghan McGuire said that progress was being made, as the staff turnover rate was down and weekly hours of active treatment doubled from 2007 to 2008. VCBR residents weren’t as optimistic.

“We traded a prison for a prison after we did our time,” said Mark Hodges, 41, who was civilly committed to VCBR.

“They have me in leisure-skills classes, arts-and-crafts classes ... stuff like that, and I told them I can get stuff like that on my own,” said Victor Johnson, 26. “If I’m here, I want to be treated.”

The residents have found support in an unlikely advocate. Sex-crime victim Paul Martin Andrews, who organized political support to get the civil commitment program funded, is worried about the lack of treatment.

“The [U.S.] Supreme Court has made it clear that the real reason for these guys to be committed to the center is for treatment,” said Andrews. “To think that we could turn these guys around, who have committed these [sex-related] crimes time and time again, and be able to release them safely is kind of ambitious – especially if they’re not getting treatment.”

W. Lawrence Fitch of the Maryland Department of Mental Health and Mental Hygiene, an expert on civil commitment, dis-agreed. He said the Supreme Court held that if a civil commitment program doesn’t deliver meaningful treatment, the law creating it is not necessarily unconstitutional. Instead, the residents must file suit in an attempt to force the state to provide adequate treatment.

It sounds like the residents are right: VCBR is just another prison – with few if any opportunities to obtain treatment or release, which is generally the whole point of creating civil commitment laws in the first place. Nor is the public getting much in return for its tax dollars; each resident at VCBR costs the state about $131,000 a year, more than 5 times the price of keeping someone in prison. PLN has previously reported on civil commitment centers in Washington state, Florida and California. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.18; Sept. 2007, p.20; Dec. 2006, p.20].

Sources:, Associated Press, VA OIG Report #169-08

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