Private Prison Companies and University Stadiums Should Not Mix

14 Mar

I have to start off by apologizing for my blatant plagiarism in this post.  I just spent the past 45 minutes trying to figure out how to install a plug-in to allow me to provide footnotes but apparently there is a difference between a WordPress site and a WordPress.com site and since I have the later there are no plug-ins available and I therefore am forced to either link articles or steal content.  So, either the articles have been linked, or else the information came straight from a document put out by the Seattle University School of Law and to find it just go to “Voices from Detention.”  So, please nobody sue me.

I know that maybe this is slightly old news, but I am going to weigh in on it anyway, nearly a month after I was initially pissed off by the small article I saw in The Times.  The issue is the decision by Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, to rename is football field GEO Group Stadium after a private prison corporation.  The CEO of GEO (ha!), Dr. George Zoley is an alumnus of Florida Atlantic University.  He secured the naming rights to this stadium through the largest charitable donation to the university in its history — a $6 million gift paid out over 12 years that the administration says will go to pay for athletic operations, scholarships, the stadium and “academic priorities,” whatever the hell that means.  Mary Jane Saunders, the president of the university, said that because the school doesn’t take any state money to run its athletic program, it is “important for us to use our naming rights to fund the stadium and fund scholarships.” Scholarships are all well and good but how about, um, promoting good ethics and not associating yourself with a corporation that has been investigated by the ACLU for human rights abuses?  Seems like dirty money to me.

I would first like to make the point that not only is GEO a private prison company with facilities all over the world, but it also runs a number of immigration detention centers.  One of those centers, the Northwest Detention Center located in Tacoma, Washington, is a 1,575-bed facility, making it one of the largest detention centers in the country.  By those working in United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), it is known as a “COCO,” which stands for a contractor-owned/contractor-operated facility.  Which means, to me, that much like with companies such as Blackwater, there is limited government oversight and either limited ability, or limited desire, for the state to get involved in the day-to-day running of the operations or hold the companies that own these facilities to reasonable standards of treatment of detainees.  The ACLU, it seems, came to similar conclusions (albeit with less use of assumption and more use of fact).  In May 2007, the ACLU reported to the United Nations Special Rapporteur that the US “failed to promulgate binding minimum standards for the conditions of confinement for detained immigrants” and also that the US “failed to ensure that detention facilities comply with the nonbinding standards that exist.”  The ACLU went further to say that the management of immigration detention is “further marred by ineffective oversight, lack of accountability and lack of transparency.” (Italics mine.)

The running of these facilities as “COCOs” also means that this is a for-profit endeavor, indicating to me that the more detainees the center houses, the more money the center makes, and, furthermore, that if there is no oversight, then mistreatment and poor living conditions can go unchecked by any regulatory agency.  (I would imagine that not having enough beds, for example, would be cheaper than having enough beds and therefore more money!)  In fact, the Seattle University School of Law’s 65-page report, “Voices From Detention,” cited physical and physiological abuse of detainees at the Tacoma center.  One of the most oft-cited examples of poor treatment involved an outbreak of food-poisoning in 2007 that impacted 300 out of the then 1,000 detainees at the site resulting from food not cooked to the necessary temperature to kill bacteria.  Apparently thermometers are too expensive for GEO.

Here’s another thing.  According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), since 2002 the US has  maintained the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world.  According to a report by the Bureau of Justice cited in the PRB report, the United States incarcerates 500 people per 100,000, a rate about 5 times that of other similar countries.  What is interesting, and perhaps most relevant here, is that the South incarcerates 552 per 100,000, whereas the West has a rate of 418, the Midwest 389, and the Northeast 296.  So here we are, naming a stadium after a prison company in the region with the highest incarceration rates within a country that locks up more people than any other in the world.  Doesn’t that seem a little off to you?  Doesn’t it seem like maybe we should have standards for these sorts of things?

I get it, the sports teams need money to continue paying for equipment, for the salaries of coaches and, hopefully, the scholarships of kids who otherwise might not be able to attend college.  But let’s look at it this way.  Education offers kids opportunity to go out in the world and make something of themselves.  Maybe they come from a family of college graduates, maybe they are the first one.  Maybe they come from a family of law-abiding citizens, or maybe they come from a family that has been affected by the legal system, be it due to their own misdeed or due to the increase in arrests of people for petty drug crimes and the blatant racism inherent in our criminal justice system.  Maybe this is their big break.  So what does it say when we link together our educational system, a system that offers opportunity, with the private-prison system, a system that strips people of opportunity, that forever links their name with some crime, be it serious or not.  What it says, to me, is that we in the United States have absolutely no shame.  When we are willing to take donations from, and worse still name highly visible structures after, an organization like GEO that makes its money off of the unnecessary suffering of individuals, the institutionalization of fear and racism, and obvious injustice associated with the privatization of the prison system, we have hit rock bottom.  Or else I hope we have.

I am appalled not only by GEO and what it does and how it runs its business, but by Mary Jane Saunders and Florida Atlantic University’s decision to take this gift.  Let’s hope that the move by the ACLU to obtain records on this deal goes through and that the organization can prove that Saunders and FAU knew about the activities of GEO before accepting this deal.  If it doesn’t get honored, then this country is even more fucked up than I thought because about 5 minutes spent researching GEO Group’s activities reveal some rather questionable information.  I would imagine FAU spent more than 5 minutes on this task and just relied on the apathy of the population of the United States, and its student body, to just grin and bear it.  Well, let’s hope FAU is wrong.  Let’s not allow the private-prison industry to buy access to our education system, the students of the United States, and of Florida Atlantic University, deserve much better.

One Response to “Private Prison Companies and University Stadiums Should Not Mix”

  1. Jamie Wallhauser March 14, 2013 at 11:00 pm #

    Well said, stay on this topic in your time. This story helps shine light on the cause of prison reform and as you so clearly point out, the need for intense oversight.

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