Day #075: Replace GEO Group with a restoration center

Richmond hired the face of the prison industrial complex, and no one noticed. San Antonio offers a model for a much better program.

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Create a Restoration Center
  • Difficulty: 3 — The program is highly successful in San Antonio, but it’s tough to get people who don’t know criminals–and don’t ever plan on being criminals–to support accommodating policy.

America’s justice system is broken. Nearly 1-in-100 Americans are incarcerated; roughly 945 inmates occupy Richmond’s brand new jail. A huge cause of the American prison problem is the dismantling of our nation’s mental health system. In response to an overcrowded prison system, San Antonio started the ground breaking Restoration Center. It’s saving money and emptying cells while helping some of the city’s neediest residents.

Like many cities across the country, San Antonio’s police officers were dealing with mentally ill individuals who committed minor misdemeanors like trespassing and public intoxication. Many of the individuals needed help. Faced with the choice of waiting 12 hours in an emergency room or 20 minutes at the jail, police would lock up individuals so they could quickly get back to patrolling the streets.

Across the country, an estimated 356,268 people with mental illnesses including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are in prisons and jails, compared to just 35,000 in state hospitals–a tenfold difference.

Five years ago, San Antonio started requiring 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for all officers, and they created a six-person, plain-clothes unit for responses to misdemeanor calls related to mental illness. At the same time they started the Restoration Center, a sixteen bed psychiatric unit with a sobering unit and a medical clinic.

18,000 people pass through the Restoration Center each year, and the program has saved San Antonio roughly $10 million per year for the last five years in police overtime, emergency room visits, and jail resources.

The center offers a 48-hour inpatient psychiatric unit, outpatient services for psychiatric and primary care, centers for alcohol and drug detox, and a 90-day recovery program. Felons are still immediately jailed, and the center isn’t a free pass for those who broke the law, but it offers help to individuals suffering from drug and alcohol addiction as well as homelessness.

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The Richmond Police Department has a head start on where San Antonio was five years ago. Thanks to a state grant, the department is working its way toward 100% of officers being CIT trained. Richmond also has an “award winning” Homeless Outreach Partnerships Enforcement unit.1

In response to having too large of a population for the larger new jail,2 the City has also instituted an electronic monitoring program and a program for making bond easier to obtain for non-violent criminals. Finally, the City has created the day reporting center:

Participants in the program will report to the center for an average of 180 days, where they will be subject to daily check-ins, drug and alcohol testing, and case management. Participants also receive ongoing treatment to help break the cycles of criminal behavior, taking classes that include behavioral therapy, employment readiness, GED prep, and life skills.

The program is run by GEO Group, a publicly traded corrections company from Boca Raton, Florida. The City signed a two-year $800,000 contract with the company whose history is checkered at best. GEO Group has been fined for chronic mismanagement and staffing shortages as well as being accused and sued for horrifying conditions.

This one finding from the United States District Court in Mississippi (PDF) is particularly disturbing, “WGYCF (a GEO Group run facility) has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.”

Those findings are shocking, but they are not unbelievable. Hiring private contractors for prison work is directly at odds with society’s goals of rehabilitation and public safety. It is the definition of an agency problem: “a conflict of interest inherent in any relationship where one party is expected to act in another’s best interest.”3

Many of the goals of the day reporting center are admirable and necessary, but shouldn’t many of these be covered through other city services and parol officers? Instead of giving $800,000 per year to a private company, the city should team up with surrounding counties to build a program similar to the Restoration Center in 2016.

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Some policy is ineffective and costs lots of money. Some policy is effective and costs lots of money. San Antonio’s Restoration Center is effective policy that saves money. Richmond should take notes from the Alamo City and replace the day reporting center with a Restoration Center.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

  1. Although their bullet points raise some questions. How are the police equipped to “provide longterm solutions to reduce instances of homelessness?” As my professor Leon Debben always says, “Policing is not neighborhood building. It’s chasing people from one place to another.” 
  2. Why policies weren’t pushed to reduce overcrowding before building the new jail is beyond me. Either way, the city probably needed a new jail. 
  3. Residents opposed to Wal-Mart coming to Grace Street because of bad labor practices should consider focusing a little more energy on GEO Group. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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