• March 4, 2021

BLM Blow: Virginia Rejects Bill Outlawing Private Prisons

 BLM Blow: Virginia Rejects Bill Outlawing Private Prisons

By Hédi Benyounes

RICHMOND, Va. — Even after a summer of unrest nationwide that led to round-the-clock coverage of protests and demands, the Black Lives Matter movement — or BLM — is already facing legislative setbacks in this new year. In their first week in session, Virginia state senators rejected a proposal that would have outlawed private prisons in the state. 

Critics of private prisons say the setback keeps the status quo in place, which they say means putting profits and penny pinching over the mental and physical health of inmates.  

“People who are under the care of the state involuntarily have the right to a certain standard of care,” Virginia state Sen. Adam Ebbin, the Democrat who introduced the unsuccessful bill to outlaw private prisons, said. “When we put a private organization in charge of people who are incarcerated, there is less accountability. If the state is going to incarcerate people, the state should be the one that ensures that standards are being met.”

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom banned private prisons in California. While the Democrat’s effort was later challenged by the Trump administration, a federal judge sided with the state and the governor. Other states — like Oklahoma and Washington, along with a handful of others — have also taken steps recently to outlaw for-profit, private correctional facilities. 

But in the midst of a global recession tied to the coronavirus pandemic, the fiscal argument mostly won out in the commonwealth. State Sen. Joe Morrissey, a Democrat from Richmond, said the profit motive is also a problem at state-operated prisons. He said the bill to ban private prisons didn’t include deep enough reforms in other parts of the state’s prison system where private companies make a profit from inmates, who are gouged for things like aspirin and phone calls.

“They pay $1 or $1.10 or $1.50 a minute,” Morrissey said. “It is that profit, which the patron says he is trying to take away, still remains in this bill.”

Housing inmates in Virginia prisons costs the state about $70 a day for each inmate, But the private prisons claims it can do it a lot cheaper, about $50 a day. Members of the Virginia state Senate say that’s a savings too good to pass up. 

Private prisons incarcerate about 130,000 people in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Virginia has only one private prison, which is close to the North Carolina border, in Lawrenceville. It’s operated by Florida-based GEO Group, which operates about 60 facilities with more than 50,000 beds in the United States, Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom. 

“Senator Ebbin’s legislation is misguided and does not recognize the true value and benefits of GEO’s operation of the Lawrenceville Correction Center,” Christopher Ferreira, manager of corporate relations for GEO Group, said. “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.” 

The election of incoming president Joe Biden initially sent stocks for private prisons into a slump, because he vowed to “stop corporations from profiteering from incarceration.”  

Michael Lee Pope

Michael Pope is a reporter for Virginia Public Radio. He's an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has reported for NPR, the New York Daily News and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has a master's degree in American Studies from Florida State University, and he is a former adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College. He is the author of four books.

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