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Virginia Considers Privatizing State’s Civil Commitment Center

A November 2011 standoff between police and two sex offenders threatening suicide at the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation (VCBR), the state’s civil commitment facility near Richmond, raised concerns about the safety and treatment of residents held at the center.

Two residents – identified only as a 29-year-old from Richmond and a 32-year-old from Delaware – climbed about 15 feet to the roof of the VCBR on November 21, 2011 and tied sheets around their necks. They demanded to speak with an official about treatment at the facility.

“We got two people up on the roof with nooses around their necks because they’re violating people’s rights here,” said a man who claimed to be a VCBR resident when he called the Richmond Times-Dispatch during the standoff. “We’re trying to talk to [administrators] and they aren’t doing anything for us.”

The two residents voluntarily descended from the roof after three hours and were examined by medical staff. They were then interviewed by Virginia State Police and returned to the center, which holds around 290 residents – mainly convicted sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences but have been civilly committed because they are deemed too dangerous to release.

“The facility’s perimeter was not in danger of being breached by these individuals during this incident,” said Meghan McGuire, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

The VCBR was the subject of a 2011 state legislative watchdog agency report that called into question the facility’s screening methods for civilly committing sex offenders.
McGuire rejected those concerns, saying that residents “have many freedoms of choice, and careful consideration is given to human rights concerns.”

Virginia officials are considering whether the state should privatize the VCBR after receiving unsolicited bids from two companies, Liberty Healthcare Corp. and GEO Care – the latter being a subsidiary of private prison firm GEO Group.

One potential incentive to privatize is to reduce the center’s operating costs, which are expected to rise. A 2011 study by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services projected that the VCBR’s population could more than double to 600 residents by 2016. That is partly because very few people leave the center; from 2004 to July 2011, only 21 residents were released.

Civil commitment is also expensive. A report by Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, released in November 2011, found the facility spent $24.5 million annually, or around $91,000 per resident. Most of that expense was for staff and security; only 10 percent went to treatment, and 16 percent for medical costs.

According to Professor Michele Deitch at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, civil commitment is an attractive market for for-profit companies.

“No one’s likely to want to close them down. The inmates probably aren’t getting out,” she noted. “You’ve got the growing population feeding into these civil commitment centers. I would imagine private prison companies see it as a fairly safe area for growth.”

GEO seems to be politically well-positioned for a contract to operate the VCBR. The company donated $28,000 to Governor Robert McDonnell’s election campaign in 2009, and in January 2011 GEO Care retained McGuire Woods Consulting, which employs former Virginia attorney general Jerry Kilgore, to lobby on “matters related to Virginia’s sexually violent predator program.”

However, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission indicated there may be problems with contracting with a for-profit company to manage the state’s civil commitment center.

“The incentive to make a profit tends to encourage efficiency and quick decision-making that often results in lower costs,” the commission stated. “However, the same profit motive could supersede treatment and safety considerations and lead to individuals being moved through treatment and then recommended for release before they are ready.”

Mary Devoy, executive director of Reform Sex Offender Laws of Virginia (RSOLV), also cited concerns with privatizing the VCBR. “The day this becomes a business, we know no one will ever get out of there,” she said.

On July 30, 2012, a coalition of criminal justice, civil rights, faith-based and labor organizations submitted a joint letter to Governor McDonnell, urging him to reject privatization of the state’s civil commitment center.

“What is currently an overcrowded situation at VCBR could become dramatically worse if run by a company that increases its profits at the expense of programs and operations, including security, in the facility,” the letter noted.

The signatories to the joint letter included the Justice Policy Institute, Grassroots Leadership, Communication Workers of America, AFSCME, In The Public Interest, Justice Strategies, the Private Corrections Institute, Progressive States Action, The Sentencing Project, the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, and the Human Rights Defense Center (the parent organization of Prison Legal News).

Although the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services said it was “taking a comprehensive look at the two private companies who proposed to run VCBR ... to determine whether privatization of the program is the right fit for Virginia,” as of late December 2012 the state had not taken action on the unsolicited bids from GEO Care and Liberty Healthcare Corp.

Sources: Richmond Times-Dispatch,,,

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