By Alan Bean
It was just a matter of time before this headline appeared. First the student of Florida Atlantic University protested naming their school’s football stadium after GEO Group (the for-profit prison company) and then the tenured faculty, at the close of a contentious meeting, voted to protest the plan. Seeing the writing on the wall, GEO executives decided to withdraw their $5 million gift and let the dream die.
I still say that the student who coined the term “Owlcatraz” (in honor of the FAU fighting Owls) drove home the final coffin nail. But as this HuffPost article shows, GEO’s real problem was its well-documented record of prisoner abuse. Too many courts had tossed out too many damning quotes for reporters to leave alone. We can thank the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Mississippi ACLU for exposing the abuse at the Walnut Grove prison.
You could hear the fat lady sing the moment Steven Colbert got hold of the story. As he suggests, this is what happens when you pay a lot of money so people will pay attention to your company . . . people start paying a lot of attention to your company.
It was a move that baffled sports marketing experts: Florida Atlantic University struck a deal in February to name its football stadium after a private prison company.
But after more than a month of backlash from students, faculty and human rights groups, the GEO Group Inc. pulled out of the $6 million deal with Florida Atlantic on Monday, citing the “distraction” it had caused for the company and the university.
“What was originally intended as a gesture of GEO’s goodwill to financially assist the University’s athletic scholarship program has surprisingly evolved into an ongoing distraction to both of our organizations,” GEO Group chairman and chief executive George Zoley said in a statement released by the university on Monday.
Soon after the deal was announced in mid-February, it got attention in national news outlets and garnered a segment on the Colbert Report. Citing lawsuits against the company and federal reports detailing horrible conditions at a GEO-operated youth prison in Mississippi, host Stephen Colbert quipped: “This criticism is just one of the downsides of paying millions of dollars to have people pay attention to your company …. People start paying attention to your company.”
The GEO Group is based in Boca Raton, Fla., just a few miles from Florida Atlantic University. Zoley, the company’s chairman and chief executive, received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the university and was a former chairman of the board of trustees.
The university had been seeking a corporate sponsor for two years to pay down the debt on its newly built stadium, and the GEO Group pledged to pay $6 million over 10 years in exchange for the naming rights.
Florida Atlantic President Mary Jane Saunders told HuffPost that the GEO Group’s decision was made entirely on its own, without input from the university. But, she agreed that the stadium naming deal had become a distraction from other university initiatives.
“We have some so many wonderful stories at the university and so many positive things happening, so it’s difficult to see all of the stories having a negative slant toward a great university,” Saunders said.
Student groups at Florida Atlantic quickly coalesced against the GEO Group Stadium deal when it was announced, dubbing the facility “Owlcatraz” — a play on the university’s mascot, an owl. They staged a sit-in outside the university president’s office in February and demanded that university leadership organize forums and discussions about GEO’s human rights record.
The school’s faculty senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution against the stadium name last month, noting that GEO Group’s business practices “do not align with the missions of the university.”
Simon Glynn, a philosophy professor at FAU, said he was astonished that the university would so readily enter into an agreement with a company accused of human rights violations.
“My feeling was that this isn’t how we were supposed to be educating young people,” Glynn said. “It seemed to me to put faculty into a somewhat untenable position.”
The GEO Group’s revenue has nearly tripled over the last decade, as the private prison company has captured greater shares of state and federal prison populations, including facilities that hold undocumented immigrants. GEO has also donated more than $1.2 million to the Florida Republican Party over the last three election cycles. Republicans in the state legislature last year came close to approving a massive expansion of private prisons in south Florida, an opportunity that the GEO Group mentioned frequently in calls with investors.
GEO has come under fire from human rights groups, who point to a string of problems at the company’s facilities across the country. At a youth correctional center in Texas, state inspectors found “filthy” and “unsafe” conditions that included feces on walls, leading the state to cancel the contract with GEO. A federal judge described the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, which GEO took over in 2010, as a “cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts.”
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves pointed out in a court order last year that GEO Group had not improved staffing levels at the Mississippi facility, “which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.”
“The facility remained so understaffed that a teenage offender was brutally attacked by several other offenders while only one staffer was on site,” Reeves wrote.
A GEO Group spokesman did not respond to requests for additional comment about the stadium deal or problems documented at company facilities, offering only the letter the company sent to FAU to formally withdraw the financial commitment.
Saunders, the FAU President, shied away from specific questions about the GEO Group’s record in an interview, saying that the university agreed to the deal because of the local connections between the university and Zoley, the GEO Group chief executive.
“This was a gift from a very successful alumnus.” she said. “This was an organization that’s a very strong organization in our small town of Boca Raton, and I really think that was the original view of the gift.”
Saunders acknowledged the political divisiveness over privatizing prisons, but said that “these are legislative decisions; these are not decisions made by universities.”
Students who organized the protests, which eventually drew the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Florida Immigrant Coalition and the United Methodist Church, said they believe the pressure on university leadership ended the stadium deal.
“From the beginning, we did not want the university associated with a company that violates human rights,” said Gonzalo Vizcardo, a student organizer at FAU. “The GEO Group wanted to legitimize its business, and normalize the idea of private prisons, and they were utterly defeated.”
FAU had been searching for more than two years for a corporate sponsor before GEO Group agreed to pay $6 million over 10 years. The university built the $70 million football stadium in 2011, borrowing more than $45 million.
Saunders said the university can pay for the stadium with or without a naming sponsor, but added that the university has hired Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Florida Panthers hockey team, to help search for a new sponsor.
Personally, she said, she has definitely learned from the controversy over the stadium.
“If we don’t keep learning from what we’re doing, we’re doomed,” Saunders said. “This is the way of life in universities today, and we just hope that everybody comes out at the end of a controversial issue with some new self-knowledge and some understanding about ways to be effective.”
This article has been updated with comments from FAU President Mary Jane Saunders.