Dear Editor,

“A picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.” These were the words of Judge Carleton Reeves to describe the treatment of children at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. According to the ACLU, it was run by the GEO Group, a for-profit prison operator, until its forceful takeover by the Mississippi State Government.

This corporation is the second-largest for-profit prison operator in the United States. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it operates 141 facilities, including one in Virginia: the Lawrenceville Correctional Facility. The Private Corrections Workings Group/Private Corrections Group website hosts a database that documents the hundreds of lawsuits, riots, and hunger strikes that the company has faced in recent years due to its alleged appalling treatment of inmates. No lawsuits have yet been filed against the specific Virginia facility, but the company shows no sign of ceasing its alleged history of malpractice. In late 2017, ABC reported that an Indiana institution lost more than 8,000 doses of gabapentin, a highly addictive pain medication. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson is currently suing the company for allegedly violating minimum wage laws by paying inmates at Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) just $1 a day to work. The lawsuit is welcomed by NWDC inmates, as they have conducted years of hunger strikes to protest these alleged wage issues and other living conditions. 

Corporations, including the GEO Group, should not be allowed to operate prisons in Virginia. The major claims of privately-run prisons is that they save the state money. However, cost analyses do not corroborate these claims. According to the New York Times, private prisons can choose their inmates. As a result, they accept only the healthiest inmates, so their healthcare costs are a fraction of what they would be if they dealt with the same demographics as institutions run by the government. These practices make the government-run prisons more expensive per inmate, because their prison populations are now generally sicker.

The issue with for-profit prisons is obvious: they are driven by a bottom line rather than a quest for justice. The Virginia State Government economically benefits from rehabilitating prisoners and reducing recidivism rates. The GEO Group, on the other hand, benefits from a continuous re-supply of inmates. According to the National Juvenile Justice Network, their contracts with Virginia even include occupancy guarantee provisions. Instead of paying for costs per inmate, Virginia is required to pay the institution as if 95% of the beds were full at all times. However, the state often lacks enough prisoners to fill this number of beds. The Federal Bureau of Prisons lists the Lawrenceville Correctional Facility as a medium security level institution. Virginia is economically benefited by sending inmates who require different security levels to Lawrenceville so it doesn’t waste money. These practices put everyone in the prison at risk. According to a 2016 Department of Justice report, inmates assault staff about 3.75 times more often at prisons run by the GEO Group than at those operated by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Additionally, staff at the GEO Group face about twice the number of grievances filed than the BOP staff.

Virginia needs to stop relying on the GEO Group to run its prisons. After the current contract expires, the state government needs to restart its operation. No inmates or staff should be put in danger for an attempt at financial gain. 

Megan Sheridan, Oakton