Florida Students Take on Private Prison Industry
Ken Butigan, Waging Nonviolence Contributor
Let’s imagine it’s 2063. Florida Atlantic University’s board of trustees has established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to disentangle the school’s historical support for the for-profit prison system — including its decision a half-century earlier to award its football stadium naming rights to the GEO Group, the nation’s second largest operator of for-profit prisons, in exchange for a multi-million dollar donation.
While we’re imagining, let’s imagine that after the steady growth of the for-profit prison sector over several decades, all federal, state, county and city jails in the United States were privatized by 2030. In trying to understand this phenomenon, historians began to tease out the small but significant contribution Florida Atlantic University made to this growth industry. They began to track how, with the backing of private-prison largesse, FAU went on to established endowed chairs in Prison-Industrial-Complex studies, created the largest experimental “corrections lab” in the world, built a prestigious architecture school largely devoted to prison design, founded a center applying prison management techniques to society at large, and hired a new generation of prison-studies post-docs to teach courses in departments across the university with incarceration themes and applications, from Literature to Computer Science.
If we can imagine this, perhaps we can also imagine the moment when the whole privatized prison regime collapsed in the 2050s.
Most analysts pointed to the fact that the prison market reached the saturation point. Others credited a surging global anti-prison campaign. In any case, the self-proclaimed “growth industry” unraveled and a slowly maturing restorative justice movement began to broadly apply the techniques it had been developing for half a century.
As the dust settled, there was a round of soul searching, including by universities and their stakeholders. FAU students woke up to the fact that their school had been pushing, and profiting from, a private prison culture for decades. Almost every day the news was filled with reports about the human suffering that had been inflicted by this pervasive, decades-old system, and FAU’s students intuited that their school was partly responsible. They decided to organize an accountability campaign. Through a nonviolent sit-in in the president’s office and other strategies to alert, educate and mobilize those on whom the president ultimately depended, the school finally faced its history.
Imagine again that it is 2063 and the FAU Truth and Reconciliation Commission has traced the school’s decades-long affiliation with the private prison industry back to the 2013 naming rights decision. What had seemed fairly routine philanthropy at the time was now viewed with historical hindsight as what the National Urban League at the time called an “unholy alliance” between America’s prison industrial complex and “the big money game of college sports.” Even more egregiously, the event helped to further normalize a loosely regulated for-profit U.S. prison culture and its already-established trend in which youth of color and those below the poverty line were disproportionately imprisoned, a reality detailed in Michelle Alexander’s then-groundbreaking study, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorbindness.
We cannot foretell what 2063 will bring. But we can identify trends. This foresight is part of the reason why students in 2013 at Florida Atlantic University are not waiting 50 years to protest the integration of higher education and the increasingly privatized prison system.
Since the university announced this plan in mid-February, students have mounted a vigorous campaign — including sit-ins, rallies, a nonviolent confrontation with the school’s president, and two online petition drives (here and here) — to call on the school to turn down the money in light of the GEO Group’s record. This dissent has garnered national press attention and has shone a spotlight not only on the school’s decision but on a growing social reality that fuses the racism and classism of disproportionate incarceration rates, immigration policy, the role of money in college sports, and the general issue of sports branding that has sparked a series of campaigns to do away with racist mascots (The Redskins, The Indians, The Fighting Illini., to name a few).
The GEO Group brings an especially damaged record to the table. Formerly named the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (which provided security personnel for many prisons, nuclear facilities and military installations within the United States and for many U.S. embassies around the world) the GEO Group is reportedly responsible for widespread human rights violations. Earlier this year, the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel detailed allegations that the GEO Group’s Broward Transitional Center — a 700-bed facility in Boca Raton, Fla., where undocumented immigrants charged with minor offenses are jailed for weeks or months — was responsible for “botched post-surgery care, inmate suicide attempts, volunteer labor that pays $1 per day and neglected psychiatric treatment, plus… appeals to the federal government against immigration law relaxation.”
The company also operated the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, a prison for 13- to 22-year-old inmates convicted as adults for crimes committed as juveniles. As detailed by National Public Radio, the U.S. Justice Department found that prison personnel engaged in “systemic, egregious and dangerous practices” — from failing to provide educational and medical services to actively assisting and engaging in gang fights to finding that prison staff engagement in sexual activity with inmates — that “is among the worst that we’ve seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” Furthermore, complaints have also been made about prisoner treatment and care in GEO-run facilities in Pennsylvania, Texas, California, and overseas.”
The company is worth almost $3 billion and is currently in the middle of a lawsuit about mistreatment of prisoners, the Miami Herald reports. In the same article, FAU political science student and member of the student government Noor Fawzy, whose parents came from Palestine, offered this assessment: “The fact that they are locking up people of color and immigrants like my parents is shameful. We don’t want our university to be associated with an entity that is being investigated for human rights abuses.”
This is not the first time a corporation has bought the naming rights of a college stadium. The nation abounds with the likes of Capital One Field (University of Maryland), TCF Bank Stadium (University of Minnesota), and Liberty Bank Stadium (Arkansas State University), which signal the ongoing corporatization of academia as well as a grab for legitimation by the banking industry. But the vocal students at FAU see the especially odious ramifications of cheering on their team in a stadium reverberating with, and in part paid for by, the inequities of privatized confinement.
It’s better to deal with this now, rather than far off in the future. This is what Brown University found out after activists and historians campaigned to air how it was founded with the support of slave traders, or Northwestern University, which is currently grappling with charges that one of its founders was responsible for the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado in which 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people were killed.
To some, awarding the GEO Group stadium rights may look like good business. But in 2063, it may very well require facing up to history and restorative justice of its own. Until then, a growing movement on Florida Atlantic University’s campus is working now to see that resolving this doesn’t take 50 years.
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