Private prison company donated money to Virginia senators who killed bill to end for-profit prisons in the state

Capitol Connection
Lawrenceville Correctional Center

Lawrenceville Correctional Center (Photo: 8News)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Nine of the 11 Virginia state senators who voted against a bill that would have abolished for-profit prison management by 2024 received campaign contributions ahead of this year’s General Assembly session from the company operating the state’s only privately run facility, according to campaign finance reports.

On Jan. 15, the Virginia Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee debated SB 1179, proposed by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), that sought to end the for-profit prison management system in the commonwealth by stripping the authority of the director of Virginia’s Department of Corrections to enter into contracts with private prison operators.

The only prison in Virginia not operated by the Department of Corrections is Lawrenceville Correctional Center, which has been run by GEO Group, Inc., a Florida-based private prison contractor, since 2003.

GEO Group donated to 29 state lawmakers in 2020, $26,500 to 12 Democrats and $8,500 to 17 Republicans, according to analysis from the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. 8News independently confirmed VPAP’s analysis by reviewing campaign finance reports filed with the state.

The company contributed to the campaigns of nine members of the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee with donations ranging from $250 to $1,000. All of the senators who received donations from GEO Group rejected the measure from Ebbin:

  • Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) – $250
  • Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta)- $250 
  • Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) – $500
  • Sen. T. Montgomery “Monty” Mason (D-Williamsburg) – $1,000
  • Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) – $1,000
  • Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) – $500
  • Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) – $500
  • Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (Chesapeake) – $1,000
  • Sen. Scott Surovell (Fairfax) – $500

In a Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee meeting, Ebbin argued that private prisons hire fewer staff members and provide less training in order to cut costs, claiming that, on average, employees at Lawrenceville receive $5,000 less per year than workers at state-run facilities.

“I want to stress that this bill does not close Lawrenceville,” Ebbin told the panel. “Lawrenceville is owned by the state, the brick-and-mortar facility. It wouldn’t close it. It would transfer the facility back to the Department of Corrections.”

Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) asked Ebbin what empirical evidence he had that shows private prisons function worse than facilities operated by the state. Ebbin pointed to a study done last year, which was ordered by the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee after the panel set a similar bill from Ebbin aside for the 2020 General Assembly session, that he said found Lawrenceville would hire 93 additional staff members if run by the VADOC.

Morrissey, who said his focus was the safety of inmates and referenced over 100 letters he wrote to wardens across the state to release offenders with pre-existing conditions amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, later challenged Ebbin on language in the bill that would allow the VADOC to contract out other services after possibly taking over Lawrenceville.

Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) asked Ebbin why the Department of Corrections couldn’t simply mandate additional staff members in a contract with private prison operators to solve the issue.

“We’re the ones who deprive these people their liberty,” Ebbin responded. “We’re the ones who should ensure that their care is adequate and up to the standards of other facilities in the state.”

“It seems to me like the issues Senator Ebbin is expressing are ones that are clearly in the control of DOC, who he is advocating would do a better job,” McDougle argued. “If they didn’t require more staff, if their oversight is not doing it, I’m kind of agreeing with Senator Morrissey. I don’t know why we think it’s a panacea that DOC is going to be doing a significantly better job.”

After comments from the public and a bit more debate, the committee voted to kill the legislation. Five Democrats on the panel — Morrissey, Sen. Scott Surovell (Fairfax), Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (Chesapeake), Sen. Mamie Locke (Hampton) and Sen. T. Montgomery “Monty” Mason (D-Williamsburg) — joined the six Republicans who sit on the committee to vote against the bill.

Campaigns receive several contributions throughout the year and money from GEO Group represents only a small fraction of what the senators on the committee received last filing period.

8News reached out to all nine senators on the committee who received contributions from the company before the 2020 session. Sen. DeSteph, the only lawmaker who responded, said he wasn’t aware of Geo Group’s donation before the vote on SB 1179.

“I do not pay attention to who donates to our campaign and will tell you that had nothing to do with my vote on this bill,” he told 8News. “I think that we should continue to privatize our prisons if it is most cost effective to do so.”

DeSteph added he was concerned of possibly removing power from the director of the state’s Department of Corrections to contract with private prisons.

“I think they should have the authority to have these prisoners housed wherever they deem necessary,” DeSteph continued. “If they need to go to a private facility then so be it…However, I did not want to take a tool out of their toolbox.”

After requesting an interview with GEO Group, a spokesperson shared a written statement.

“GEO has had a long-standing partnership with the Commonwealth and supports candidates who recognize both the important role we play in providing high-quality services, as well as the role of our Continuum of Care program, which intensely focuses on rehabilitation programming and unprecedented post-release support services, plays in helping inmates earn their re-entry into society as productive and employable citizens,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Before last year, GEO Group had contributed $67,540 to political campaigns in Virginia since 2015. No donations went to a Democratic candidate or lawmaker in that time, according to VPAP. House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian (D-Prince William) received the largest donation, $10,000, from GEO Group. Torian did not respond to our request seeking comment.

Del. Elizabeth R. Guzman (D-Prince William), who is running for Virginia’s lieutenant governor, was the chief co-patron on Ebbin’s bill and has introduced similar legislation in 2019.

“Well, you know I think Virginia is a state that is in desperate need of finance reform,” Guzman told 8News’ Kerri O’Brien in an interview. “We don’t have any type of limitations.”

Guzman noted that she does not believe GEO Group influenced her colleagues’ votes, but called on the company to invest in staffing at Lawrenceville instead of political campaigns.

“But I would say that maybe GEO Group should put its money into better staffing rather than campaign contributions,” Guzman said.

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