BRUNSWICK COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The corporation running Virginia’s only private prison says that “increasingly sophisticated methods” are being used to smuggle in drugs as the state investigates several potential overdoses and a death at the facility.
The Virginia Department of Corrections launched an investigation after several people incarcerated at Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Brunswick County suffered apparent overdoses, including one who died on Aug. 6.
The GEO Group, the prison’s operator since 2013, sent a letter to Virginia Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke on Aug. 23 outlining measures it took after the incident and others it hopes will help prevent drugs from flowing into the prison.
“GEO acknowledges that recent drug overdoses at the Lawrenceville prison have raised appropriate concerns about the safety and security of those who are held there,” James H. Black, senior vice president of The GEO Group, wrote in the letter.
The investigation into suspected overdoses at Virginia’s only privately run prison comes nearly two years after lawmakers rejected a push to end private management of state prisons and a little under a year before GEO Group’s contract with the state is set to expire.
In response to the apparent overdoses, Black wrote that Lawrenceville restricted movement of those incarcerated at the facility unless it was “medically necessary,” conducted searches and did “mass urine analysis testing.”
“A review of the inmate communications and accounts has revealed no unusual communication patterns or account activity, although we continue to collaborate with the VADOC SIU to identify ring leaders,” Black wrote to Clarke.
A Department of Corrections spokesperson told 8News on Aug. 24 that the state’s investigation is ongoing and the department was evaluating GEO’s letter but had no response at the time.
The letter added that those impacted were treated with Narcan, mass interviews were conducted and incarcerated people “involved in the overdoses” were transferred to higher security facilities. Those involved who refused a drug test “received disciplinary action,” according to the letter.
GEO Group said it has “been aggressively addressing the drug and contraband issue at Lawrenceville for several years,” but noted the prison is facing a widespread problem. The letter pointed to certain tactics to smuggle in drugs, including strips of paper, pills and candy laced with drugs being brought into the prison.
“Inmates manipulate/pay family, friends, staff, contractors, and gang members outside the facility to obtain drugs,” Black wrote. “They are using increasingly sophisticated methods, resulting in contraband being brought into a facility in one of five ways: from the air (drones), perimeter throwovers, mail, packages, or the front entrance (staff, contractors, or visitors).”
According to figures from the Department of Corrections, state prisons have reported 332 drug overdose incidents and 24 deaths since 2016. While in-person visitation was put on hold for more than a year in March 2020 due to COVID-19, data from 2020 and 2021 shows overdose incidents in Virginia prisons near the yearly average since 2016.
Virginia’s contract with GEO Group is set to expire in July 2023, but it could be renewed for another 10 years. GEO Group has been fined for not meeting the terms of its agreement with the Department of Corrections and penalized in 2020 for a lack of nurses, a doctor and a psychiatrist.
The legislative effort to ban private companies such as GEO Group from managing state prisons was killed in a Virginia Senate committee in January 2021.
A 2020 study found Lawrenceville’s annual operating budget would increase by $9.3 million if the state took over as its operator but the report noted the Department of Corrections “would increase staffing at the facility to provide adequate relief and address needs for improved security.”
“We highly value the partnership we have with your Department and would welcome the opportunity to provide those elected and appointed officials who have expressed concerns about drugs at the facility with a first-hand presentation of what we are doing to deal with this destructive presence in our prisons and communities,” Black wrote to Clarke.