RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Lawrenceville Correctional Center has been under lockdown for more than a month and there is no end in sight. Concerns over conditions are adding fuel to a previously failed push to end Virginia’s only private prison contract.
Incarcerated people and their loved ones say the lockdown started at the end of August in response to a string of overdoses and at least one death, which the state is still actively investigating.
Terra Stephens, who has a family member serving at Lawrenceville, said they have been barred from in-person and video visits for more than a month. She said the facility has also stopped religious services and outdoor time. Commissary purchases have been limited as well.
“Whoever is privately running this prison has no sense of humanity,” Stephens said. “The incarcerated, they aren’t cattle. They are people and the point of the prison is to reform behavior. How could you reform behavior in those types of conditions?”
Quadaire Patterson, who is currently incarcerated, said the environment is growing more hostile and tense. He said visitation has been suspended during past lockdowns, but never for this long.
In a recorded phone call provided to 8News, Patterson described the situation to his fiancé.
“People are losing their lives. People are OD’ing,” Patterson said. “We do want more security to help save those lives but no one is informing us of the steps that they’re actually taking.”
Lawmakers say they’re in the dark, too.
Delegate Irene Shin said she toured Lawrenceville Correctional during the lockdown. Shin said, based on her conversations, the lockdown has not solved the drug problem. She confirmed the details described by family members.
“The conditions are unacceptable,” Shin said. “When I pushed the assistant warden at Lawrenceville for answers as to why this lockdown was happening, how long it was going to take, when will there be an end date to it, I was given pretty vague answers.”
Shin said the difference in management is stark compared to state-run prisons that she has toured.
“The state should end the contract with The GEO Group and bring Lawrenceville under state operations and oversight,” Shin said.
During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers rejected a bill that would have abolished for-profit prison management by 2024.
Senator Adam Ebbin, who introduced the bill, said in a phone interview on Thursday that The GEO Group has profited by underpaying and under-hiring staff.
Asked if he plans to introduce another bill in 2023, Ebbin said, “I’ve been making inquiries about whether or not the climate has changed. I’m assessing if legislative action is the best avenue.”
At least one “no” vote is being met with second thoughts.
“I have had a change of heart that, perhaps, we don’t have the right people there,” Senator Joe Morrissey said in a phone interview on Thursday. “I’m having more and more concern about a for-profit correctional center and the impact that’s having on the inmates. A lockdown going on this long is troubling.”
Morrissey was among the “no” votes in 2021 who received campaign contributions from The GEO Group. Asked why he opposed the bill in the first place, he said he couldn’t explicitly remember and that he was in the process of reviewing old debates.
In a previous interview, Senator Bill DeSteph said he was unaware of the donation and he opposed the bill because he didn’t want to take away a tool from VADOC.
“I think that we should continue to privatize our prisons if it is most cost-effective to do so,” DeSteph said last year.
Ebbin said legislation may not be necessary. He said the Virginia Department of Corrections is engaged in a private contract and they have the power to change that.
Ebbin said he plans to engage Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration about the issue.
Youngkin’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Robert Mosier didn’t comment either.
In an email, VADOC Spokesperson Benjamin Jarvela said they were aware of the lockdown.
Asked about calls to end the state’s contract, Jarvela said, “The Department does not engage speculation. We have no further comment.”
The GEO Group didn’t answer emailed questions about when the lockdown will be lifted but a spokesperson, Christopher Ferreira, responded in a statement.
“Recently, Lawrenceville, like correctional facilities across the country, has seen an increasing flow of illegal drugs seeping behind the walls, in more sophisticated ways, such as with the use of drones,” Ferreira said. “The introduction of contraband and related drug abuse is a formidable challenge, and we are redoubling our efforts to combat it. The lockdown at the Center is a security measure meant to help address this challenge.”
Ferreira said the facility has invested in new technology, hired more staff and increased training. He said they have also enhanced security measures, including a “state-of-the-art drone detection system” and “sophisticated contraband detection scanners.”
“We value the long-standing partnership we have with the community and Virginia DOC and as such, we are working tirelessly in our efforts to meet and exceed what is expected of us,” Ferreira said.