Coalition Calls for Halt to Privatization of Virginia Civil Commitment Center

July 30, 2012

Letter to Governor says turning over facility in Burkeville to for-profit corporation could be dangerous, not a real solution to rising costs

Washington, DC– A coalition of 11 national civil rights, criminal justice reform, faith, and labor organizations have sent a letter urging Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell to reject two unsolicited bids from private corporations to take over management of the state’s civil commitment facility for sex offenders who are being held after the end of their sentence (the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, or VCBR). A recommendation has been made by a committee convened by the Commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Rehabilitative Services, and it is now awaiting a decision by Governor McDonnell.

“What is currently an overcrowded situation at VCBR could become dramatically worse if run by a company that increases its profits at the expense of programs and operations, including security, in the facility,” the advocates wrote in the letter. “An underfunded and dangerous civil commitment facility could lead to expensive lawsuits for which the Commonwealth will be liable.”

Along with a number of other states, Virginia has begun using a process called “civil commitment” to keep people convicted of sex offenses confined even after they have served all their sentenced time. While the practice has been challenged as unconstitutional because it is indefinite detainment without additional charges or sentencing, the courts have allowed civil commitment on the condition that people kept there are being treated, with the goal being released into the community when they are no longer considered a risk to reoffend. In reality, however, few people are ever released.

In recent years, Virginia has increased the number of offenses for which a person is eligible to be civilly committed from four to 28, and has legislatively mandated both the risk instrument and the risk score of that instrument that professionals must use to determine whether to detain someone at VCBR. The Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (VJLARC) has questioned these policies and noted that they have led to the VCBR census growing 1,374 percent between 2006 and 2011. The VJLARC has estimated that under current laws and practices, the number of people committed to VCBR could increase to over 600 by 2016.

"Virginia’s exponential expansion of its civilly committed population should be addressed through examining the policies and practices that are leading to so many more people being kept locked up after serving their full sentences,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. based organization that works for justice reform. "There are certainly better and less expensive ways to protect public safety than the questionable practice of civil commitment. Locking people up forever and letting people make money off of it is not a solution."

The two corporations that have offered unsolicited bids to operate the facility are GEO Group and Liberty Gilbane. Both have experienced significant problems in managing prisons and other secure facilities. According to a 2007 article in the New York Times, when run by Liberty ran the Florida civil confinement facility it “failed to meet a central purpose: treating sex offenders so they would be well enough to return to society... In Liberty’s tenure, only one of the hundreds of men here progressed far enough in therapy to earn a recommendation from company clinicians that he be released.”

GEO, one of the country’s two largest for-profit prison corporations, has been sued many times for unsafe conditions and providing unacceptable care in its facilities. GEO contracts at three facilities were recently ended in Mississippi, including a youth facility that a federal judge described as having “allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate.” Last week, the Associated Press reported three gruesome deaths at GEO-run South Florida State Hospital, including a patient who died in a scalding bathtub. Earlier this week, a GEO mental hospital in Texas faced more than $50,000 in fines for providing unacceptable conditions including unauthorized restraint and segregation of patients and failure to report serious injuries to the state.

“Given these companies’ records, it is simply mind-boggling that Virginia would even consider contracting the management of VCBR to a company like GEO or Liberty Gilbane,” said Bob Libal, Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership. “Turning over control of a facility like VCBR to a private corporation will only make problems more serious, and isn’t a real solution to shrinking the state’s justice costs.”

In addition to the Justice Policy Institute and Grassroots Leadership, other signatories to the letter include AFSCME, Communication Workers of America, Human Rights Defense Center, In The Public Interest, Justice Strategies, Private Corrections Institute, Progressive States Action, The Sentencing Project, and the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society.

Download the letter here.