City Officials Hire Controversial Private Prison Operator 

click to enlarge Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring, Mayor Dwight C. Jones and Sheriff C.T. Woody tour the city jail construction site last December.

Scott Elmquist

Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring, Mayor Dwight C. Jones and Sheriff C.T. Woody tour the city jail construction site last December.

In an effort to reduce inmate overcrowding before the opening of Richmond's new jail in April, city officials have signed an $800,000 contract with a controversial private prison operator.

Based in Boca Raton, Fla., Geo Group is the second-largest operator of private prisons in the country, and has been cited for complaints including sexual assault, inadequate inmate care, broken cell locks and feces-covered walls, according to The Palm Beach (Florida) Post.

A story the paper published last year said Geo Group has "been dogged for years by reports of sloppy — and sometimes gruesome — practices" that resulted in federal fines and jury awards of as much as $42.5 million. The company had no comment on the findings, the paper reported.

In Richmond, Geo Group will operate a new day reporting center for as many as 150 offenders. The idea is to divert people convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors, felonies and certain drug offenses who otherwise would be sentenced to jail. Instead, they will report to the center for daily check-ins, community labor and random drug tests, as well as counseling, job training and education services.

Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring was part of the city's negotiating committee that selected Geo Group. He says the company's track record of operating prisons and detainment centers might raise questions, but is irrelevant to the center Geo will operate here. "It is an issue with an arm of Geo Group that will not be on the ground here," he says.

Herring says the company's record of operating day reporting centers is positive, and that the localities Geo is working with vouched for the company's work. The city uncovered no lawsuits relative to the company's reporting centers, he says.

The city will monitor the center closely, Herring says. It is set to open in the Public Safety Building across Ninth Street from the John Marshall Courts Building.

David Hicks, the interim director of the city's Department of Justice Services, didn't return a phone call requesting comment.

The city's new jail has 1,032 beds. The inmate population is hovering at about 1,400 — the same number jail officials reported last December, a spokesman for Sheriff C.T. Woody confirms.

As city officials acknowledged then, the city is about a year behind in its effort to reduce that number, but Herring says the goal of not opening a new jail to overcrowding is achievable.

The reporting center could open in as few as two months. In addition to the 150 inmates who could be diverted from the jail to the center, Herring says the city plans to increase use of electronic monitoring in lieu of incarceration, which would divert as many as another 100 potential inmates.

Herring says his office also will stop asking people to post bond in cases where it would have been set at $10,000 or less, which would further reduce the inmate population by another 65 to 100 residents at any given time.

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