BRUNSWICK COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — 8News has uncovered a prison for profit in Virginia is routinely understaffed, potentially putting security and safety for the whole state at risk.

There have been numerous complaints about staffing and conditions at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center for about a year now. 8News has learned The GEO Group, Inc, which operates the Lawrenceville Correctional Center Brunswick County, has been in breach of its contract with the state for years.

Memos and invoices obtained by 8News reveal that month after month The GEO group has been fined thousands of dollars in damages for a lack of staffing at the correctional facility.  The documents show both security and health positions have been left unmanned. A spokesperson for The Geo Group says the health positions are never truly left open. We’re told GEO works with a temp agency to get someone until a replacement is hired.

This is not surprising to Franchesca Hylton.

“They don’t have enough people there, it is understaffed,” she said. Hylton’s husband Robert is doing time for armed robbery at Lawrenceville.

She said guards are working 15 to 16 hours a day due to staffing shortages. Hylton claims her husband has been denied medical care for his terminal heart condition — and she told lawmakers this during a recent senate hearing about the short-staffing.

“Sometimes they don’t get served breakfast until three in the afternoon because of short staff,” she testified.

Lawrenceville is the only privately run prison in the state. A representative from McGuireWoods, a legal service and public relations firm hired by GEO, told state lawmakers many correctional facilities are struggling to recruit in a pandemic.

“We know there is concern over staff openings at the facility,” said Kassie Schroth with McGuireWoods. “The ability to recruit and retain qualified staff is not unique to Lawrenceville, and I’m sure the DOC would concur with the challenges for hiring at other facilities, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.” A spokesperson for The Geo Group also tells 8News that while staff may work 16 hours, they are paid overtime for that and they never work back to back.

Yet 8News found the staffing shortages are nothing new.

Since GEO’s contract with the Virginia Department of Corrections was renewed in 2018, The Geo Group has been fined nearly $800,000 dollars for not meeting the terms of the agreement. In January 2020 alone, before the pandemic, the company was penalized more than $130,000.00 for a lack of nurses, a physician and a psychiatrist.

“They have incentives to cut corners,” said Delegate Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William).

Guzman has long been an opponent of prisons for profit and said she regularly gets complaints from constituents about this prison.

“It’s cheaper for them to pay for damages than it is to just meet the terms of the contract,” Guzman said.

Virginia lawmakers recently had a chance to end this relationship. Instead a bill to ban private prison management in the Commonwealth appears to have been dead on arrival. State senators quickly voted it down in committee. 8News uncovered 9 of the 11 senators who voted against the measure received campaign contributions from the company running the prison, The GEO Group.

“Well, you know I think Virginia is a state that is in desperate need of finance reform.  We don’t have any type of limitations,” Guzman said.

The lawmakers say they worried about the cost to the state and questioned if the Virginia Department of Corrections could do a better job. Del. Guzman doesn’t believe her colleagues were influenced by GEO Group but has a message for the private operator.

“I would say that maybe GEO Group should put its money in to better staffing rather than campaign contributions,” she said.

In a statement to 8News a spokesperson for The GEO Group said:

For nearly two decades, we have safely and securely managed the Lawrenceville Correctional Center as a long-standing partner to the Virginia Department of Corrections. As an essential government services provider, our front-line employees strive daily to deliver high-quality services to those entrusted to our care.

Senator Ebbin’s legislation is misguided and does not recognize the true value and benefits of GEO’s operation of the Lawrenceville Correctional Center.

Staffing challenges are not unique in correctional facilities, whether operated by the government or the private sector. While we work with our government partner to ensure adequate staffing levels, our contract provides for the appropriate amount of staff to safely and securely manage the Center. Due to the pandemic, many correctional settings, both in Virginia and nationwide, are currently facing challenges recruiting and hiring qualified applicants.

The Lawrenceville Correctional Center is also subject to oversight and high levels of accountability to ensure we strive to meet our contractual obligations. The Center is overseen by an on-site contract monitor from the Virginia Department of Corrections and is routinely audited by the government, third-party accreditation entities, such as the American Correctional Association, and GEO’s Contract Compliance Division. As a service provider, we welcome transparency and accountability in all of our operations.

We are proud of our long-standing record of providing high-quality rehabilitation services and secure residential services on behalf of the Virginia DOC and will strive to ensure that those entrusted to our care continue to receive those services.”

Del. Guzman is calling for Virginia’s Public Safety Secretary, Brian Moran, to take a look at the contract with GEO. She believes GEO’s failure to meet contractually agreed upon staffing levels could be a reason to terminate it. A spokesperson with Geo disagrees and says the contract clearly stipulates if the facility is understaffed, a penalty is paid.