Though GEO (formerly Wackenhut) is hardly a household name, they are a major player in the private corrections sector, combining a self righteous amorality in profiting from human misery with a ruthless sense of just how to make a buck in this business. The GEO Group is so notorious that they were the target of an Occupy Washington D.C. action in early December. In addition, the United Methodist Church sold off more than $200,000 in stock in GEO Group over the holiday season, judging that holding these shares was “incompatible with Bible teaching.”
While such actions may irritate a few within the company’s rank, the GEO Group is thick-skinned. Over the years journalists have exposed a long history of violence, abuse and corruption in the company’s facilities. Such scandals would have driven most firms out of business, but GEO has always managed to find the way back to prosperity. While the U.S. economy has plummeted in the past eighteen months, GEO has been positioning itself for the future. In addition to opening the Georgia facility, during this period the company has:
- bought up competitor Cornell Corporation and its prisons in 15 states, an acquisition expected to add about $400 million a year to GEO’s revenues.
- acquired BI Incorporated for $415 million. BI is the U.S.’ largest producer and provider of electronic monitoring units with 60,000 “customers” for their ankle bracelets
- begun the intake of new detainees at the 650 bed Adelanto ICE Processing Center East in Southern California. Adelanto West is scheduled to bring a further 650 beds online in August 2012.
- expanded their first facility, Aurora Detention Center (founded in 1987) from 400 to 525 beds
- moved ahead with plans to develop a 600 bed Civil Detention Center in Karnes County Texas, expected to generate $15 million in annual revenues
For the first nine months of 2011, GEO reported total revenues of $1.2 billion, an 11% rise over 2010. Shareholders are gloating with the company’s success. A hundred dollars invested in GEO in 2005 would have risen to $322 by 2010. At the top of the profiteers stands long-time CEO George Zoley. The owner of 70% of GEO’s stock, Zoley consistently pulls down annual compensation in excess of $3 million, landing him squarely in the ranks of the one per centers. His Chief Operations Officer Wayne Calabrese, is not far behind at around two million a year.
GEO’s rising profitability is a result of their capacity to change with the times. While the War on Drugs and facility construction were the cash cows of the industry from 1980 to 2001, 9/11 and the sinking economy have shifted the terrain. Immigration and alternatives to incarceration are the new windows of opportunity in the freedom deprivation sector. GEO, as usual, is right on the money. In Zoley’s prosaic jargon, the company is developing a “full continuum of care with leading competitive positions in every key market segment in corrections, detention and treatment rehabilitation services.”
Along with the new centers at Adelanto and expanding Aurora, the acquisition of BI has enhanced GEO’s potential to capitalize on anti-immigrant crackdowns. The takeover included BI’s five year, $372 million contract with ICE for monitoring 27,000 immigrants under Federal supervision but not held in detention centers.
Grabbing BI has also put GEO in a position to take advantage of the early release programs being implemented in California and other states. BI operates a network of daily reporting centers which offer drug treatment, anger management workshops, counseling, and a host of other services to individuals on parole and probation. These centers stand ready to help state agencies address the increasing need for supervision of people released or diverted from prison. In the long run, the large scale privatization of probation and parole functions is an obvious aim.
Further moves in line with the changing times are the firm’s forays into the psychiatric field through their GEO Care division. With mainstream mental hospitals suffering massive cutbacks, GEO Care has found a niche market in facilities for the involuntarily institutionalized, in other words, psychiatric prisons. GEO Care runs three such facilities in Florida alone. Their prize plum is the 720 bed Florida Civil Commitment Center. (Courts impose a civil commitment on those judged a threat to public safety though not convicted of any crime. People with sex offense histories are the most frequent targets.) In addition to its Florida operations, GEO Care has a presence in Texas as well, having gained a contract to run a 100 bed facility for people awaiting trial in 2009.
Predictably, GEO could not have achieved these financial successes without the usual assortment of dirty tricks and influence peddling. The firm’s team of 63 lobbyists has been active in 16 states over the past decade. In the first quarter of this year alone GEO spent more than $100,000 on lobbying in Florida as the legislature was considering a plan to privatize 29 state prisons. Unfortunately for Zoley and company, the initiative stalled this time around but is likely to resurface in upcoming legislative sessions.
GEO complements its lobbying activities with political campaign contributions, which totaled just over $2.4 million between 2003 and 2010.
Perhaps even more worrying than the GEO Group’s political maneuverings, however, are their efforts to export the U.S. model of mass incarceration and immigration detention. In the late 1990s, GEO (then Wackenhut) had a financial stake in Australia’s notorious Woomera Immigration Detention Center. UN Envoy Justice Bhagwati visited the facility and said he felt he was “in front of a great human tragedy.” Barbara Rogalia who worked there as a nurse, echoed these sentiments: “It reminded me of a Nazi concentration camp I visited in Czechoslovakia, now a museum. The only thing that was missing from the gate, at the top near the razor wire, was a sign saying ‘Arbeit macht frei‘ (‘Work sets (you) free’).”
Following massive demonstrations by community activists, a string of uprisings by those detained and a series of escapes the center closed in 2003. A corporate restructuring process ensued and the company’s corrections wing re-emerged as GEO Australia and continues to operate four prisons.
GEO’s ventures in the U.K. have had a slightly smoother landing. In 2011 GEO UK won a contract for prison escort services worth $150 million a year. In addition, they took over management of the 217-bed Immigration Removal Center in Glasgow, Scotland.
GEO Group’s last overseas venture is a 3,000 plus bed prison in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. Not long ago, it appeared that South Africa was preparing to embark on a large-scale prison privatization project, with GEO in the lead. However, a change in cabinet personnel landed Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula as Minister of Corrections. She has declared her intention to keep all facilities in state hands. Unlike in the U.S., at least someone in a national position of power in South Africa is prepared to say no to the private prison industry.
At the moment there doesn’t seem to be a Mapisa-Nqakula emerging in the Obama administration. Instead, the GEO Group looks set to make an increasing variety of projects “shovel ready.” If the halting of private profiteering from freedom deprivation is to become a reality, we will need a lot more Occupiers and political leaders with the courage to listen and act.
James Kilgore is a Research Scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois. He is the author of three novels, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, Freedom Never Rests and Prudence Couldn’t Swim, all written during his six and a half years of incarceration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org