Virginia has one private prison, Lawrenceville Correctional Center (LCC). The GEO Group is paid more than $2 million per month to manage the prison. LCC has been in the crosshairs of private prison critics.
“We’re incarcerating the people, and we have a responsibility for those inmates to do it right,” said state Senator Adam Ebbin, the Democrat who sponsored the bill that would prohibit the Virginia Department of Corrections from contracting with private prisons. “However, private prisons by contrast have a motive to make money, lowering their operating costs, hiring fewer employees and pay and train them less than state operated prisons.”
The GEO Group responded by touting its party line of being a well-oiled machine that runs efficiently. “If it ain’t broke, why are we trying to fix it?” asked Tyler Bishop, a GEO Group lobbyist. “Unlike government run facilities, contract facilities provide greater accountability because they are governed by detailed contracts and typically have on site, full time contract monitors employed by the government.”
The GEO Group, however, has a deplorable record of upholding contractual obligations. As PLN has reported, understaffing is the common theme at GEO prisons. The company has been fined by governmental entities for failing to perform as contracted. It has had state governments end the contractual operation of GEO prisons due to this underperformance.
While GEO lobbyist and spokespersons can spew sound bites for the media to digest, it knows that real power comes with money. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, the GEO Group gave $35,000 in campaign donations to 29 Virginia politicians in the weeks before the legislature went into a special session in late 2020. Most of the donations ranged from $250 to $2,000. The biggest donation went to a legislative power broker. Luke Torian, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, received a $10,000 donation. He would have been a key decision maker over whether VDOC would receive the $9 million estimated it would take to assume management of LCC.
Politicians who received the donations downplay their impact or had no comment, which was the response of Torian’s spokeswoman, Gianna DeJoy, when asked about GEO’s generous gift. Sen. Joe Morrissey said about GEO’s $500 donation that he, “Did not even realize they made a contribution.”
Ebbins’ bill did not make it out of the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee. Half of the Democrats on that committee voted against the bill. Morrissey attributed his opposition to a persuasive phone call from a GEO lobbyist and the fact that the bill would not address other prison contractors, such as canteen and phone vendors, that he views as more problematic.
The GEO Group’s donations were the first significant gifts to Virginia lawmakers in over a decade.
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