Some restrictions eased at Lawrenceville prison; concerns remain

George Copeland Jr. | 11/17/2022, 6 p.m.
Since late August, incarcerated men at Virginia’s privately-owned Lawrenceville Correctional Center experienced increased restrictions and punishments. What started with the …
Mr. Patterson

Since late August, incarcerated men at Virginia’s privately-owned Lawrenceville Correctional Center experienced increased restrictions and punishments.

What started with the end of outdoor activities and the cancellation of visitations from friends and family without warning grew to include stringent cleanliness checks and disproportionate punishments, according to inmates and their loved ones.

And while some of the restrictions have become more relaxed in recent weeks, they are not enough, say sources familiar with the prison.

Quadaire Patterson, who has been incarcerated for 15 years in the Lawrenceville prison for armed robbery, says the lockdown left occupants isolated in their cells and building sections, deprived of the few options available for rehabilitation during their confinement.

“The environment has taken on a more of a hostile tone,” Mr. Patterson said in a recent recorded phone conversation. “Being restricted from seeing our loved ones, it’s built up tension.”

“We’re not able to go outside, exercise properly. We’re confined to the building constantly. It’s very contentious in here.”

The prison lockdown began on Oct. 17, according to the GEO Group, which operates the LVCC. The lockdown followed reports of several overdoses and deaths among the incarcerated in the facility in early August. Those incidents led to a response from the GEO Group, as well as an investigation from the Virginia Department of Corrections that is ongoing.

According to a GEO Group spokesman, the Lawrenceville prison is now transitioning back to normal operations, with the return of in-person visitations on Nov. 5, and vocational and religious programing resuming Monday.

“We are pleased that the mitigation efforts we had previously taken to curb the introduction of contraband, particularly drug-related contraband, have allowed us to begin transitioning the Center to normal operations,” The GEO Group said in a written statement.

“We value the enduring partnership we have with the Commonwealth of Virginia, and we share the same goal of providing a safe, secure, and humane environment for inmates, staff, and visitors at Lawrenceville.

“We will continue working with the Virginia DOC as we manage the contraband challenges that many correctional facilities across the country are also currently facing.”

Santia Nance, a member of Sistas in Prison Reform and Mr. Patterson’s fiancé, confirmed that operations at LVCC have improved recently, with phone calls and visitations available again, although she said only some of the school and religious programs have re- turned, and that these services now appear to be provided monthly instead of weekly.

She said the lockdown was the latest grievance with a facility that long has been criticized for its treatment of the men imprisoned. Frequent complaints about the facility include it being understaffed, employees underpaid and deteriorating facilities.

Ms. Nance

Ms. Nance

The Lawrenceville prison, which opened in 1998, has a prisoner capacity of 1,555, and currently houses 1,536 according to a GEO Group’s webpage on the facility.

“They’re punishing everybody in the prison for mistakes that other people have made,” Ms. Nance said. “There’s more fights and arguments, people that work there are in danger, people who have nothing to do with some of the terrible things that happen in the facility are caught in the crossfire, and it feels like a very dangerous place for them to be.”

The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and Social Action Linking Together had added further questions to the LVCC’s current operations in a report released on Oct. 18. The report shared data and multiple testimonies from incarcerated men, their loved ones and correctional officers at LVCC detailing several problems the incarcerated face.

Issues investigated as part of this report include the extortion of and violence against the incarcerated, unresponsive leadership and understaffing in violation of the GEO

Group’s contract well before the COVID- 19 pandemic began, including a lack of health care officials onsite. Because of such problems, there are calls for the Virginia Department of Corrections to not renew the GEO Group’s contract.

“The cruelty being experienced by individuals incarcerated at LVCC and the waste of Virginia taxpayer money has to end,” SALT Founder and Coordinator John Horejsi stated. “Virginia’s experiment with for-profit prison management has been a total failure.”

Shawn Weneta, who was incarcerated for six years at the LVCC and now serves a as policy strategist for the ACLU of Virginia, doubts that VADOC would take ownership of the facility. The GEO Group’s contract expires on July 31 next year, but has been renewed in the past, despite ongoing issues that Mr. Weneta said were present during his incarceration.

“Not only is it a transparency issue and a matter of treating people in a humane manner and with dignity and respect, but it’s also a public safety issue,” Mr. Weneta said. “It’s a matter of public safety for the staff and volunteers there.”

Mr. Weneta, Ms. Nance and other prison justice advocates have pushed for several solutions not just for Lawrenceville but also Virginia prisons in general, which includes instituting independent oversight of the VADOC and ending solitary confinement.

Efforts to end privately-owned prisons in Virginia have included a bill seeking to end for-profit prison ownership in Virginia by 2024. That bill was introduced during the 2021 General Assembly by Senator Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, but failed to advance out of the Senate. It’s not clear how the current lockdown could impact future efforts to end private prison owner- ship in the state.

Beyond these efforts, those concerned for the state of the LVCC, inside and out, have stressed the need for public advocacy by contacting legislators.

“Advocate for us,” Mr. Patterson said. “We as offenders, as prisoners, we’re not given the benefit of the doubt.”

“Our loved ones and those who have any type of inclination to decency should raise their concerns, with the agency, with DOC, with their legislators, with those in power and hold them accountable for the mistreatment that’s happening.”