Wackenhut emerges as GEO Group

New name but, same problems

By Alice Thomas-Tisdale

Jackson Advocate Publisher

In 2003, the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation officially changed its name to the GEO Group, Inc. Headed by George Zoley since the 1980s, this Florida-based for-profit private prison company claims that it is “a world leader in the delivery of private correctional and detention management, community residential re-entry services as well as behavioral and mental health services to federal, state and local government agencies.”

However, some of its employees and inmates describe it quite differently, alleging the problems plaguing GEO are the same problems this company experienced when it called itself Wackenhut. Wackenhut/GEO operates prisons in South Africa and the United States. Some reports indicate it currently receives over $600 million a year from government agencies to operate private prisons in the United States, including detention facilities for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”). When calling itself Wackenhut, the U.S. Department of Justice reportedly accused it of subjecting juvenile inmates in Louisiana to “excessive abuse and neglect”.

Other reports indicate that guards in New Mexico physically and sexually abused inmates. Another report contends that money intended for drug treatment programs in its Texas prisons were improperly diverted to maximize profits. More recently, and while calling itself GEO, scores of reports from across the United States are claiming that inmates have died while being held in GEO facilities, adequate health care is being denied inmates, and employees complaining about civil rights violations are being fired. On its website, the Private Corrections Working Group lists complaints filed against GEO.

Thirty-seven pages of documents lists hundreds of complaints filed against GEO. Some former employees of GEO’s Aurora, Colorado ICE facility too are claiming that GEO is engaging in illegal conduct. Among their complaints against GEO are employment discrimination based upon race and disability, guards hurling racial slurs at detainees, anti-union organizing efforts, and guards being forced to work beyond exhaustion, with some working in excess of 80 hours in a single work week.

In a lawsuit currently pending in the United States District Court in Denver, Colorado, Velma Underwood alleges that she “was subjected to a racially hostile work environment where the Geo Group Managers and officers directed racial and ethnic slurs and racial ethnic jokes toward Underwood, other similarly situated black detention officers, and black, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic detainees.” Underwood claims she was fired in retaliation for complaining about racial discrimination. Underwood alleges that she “reported that black detainees at the Aurora Facility were frequently called Niggers, Foreign Niggers, Kunta Kente, Monkeys, and Yard Apes by white officers. … Latino detainees were called Wetbacks.”

Kim Andrews claims she too heard these racial slurs, and after she complained GEO fired her because of her race and refused to provide a reasonable accommodation for her disability. Another former detention officer at GEO’s ICE facility in Aurora, Gary Davis, claims he was forced to regularly work overtime, including being forced to work 84 hours in a single work week. According to Stephen Fuller, GEO’s vice president for human resources, it is acceptable for detention officers to work 84 hours in a single work week. Mr. Fuller believes there is no limit to the number of hours a GEO detention officer can work in a single week. GEO reportedly makes hefty contributions to politicians, which reportedly helps it land government contracts to operate its private profit-making prisons. Publisher’s Note: This is the first in our series of stories about for-profit private prisons. You can follow our stories in our print edition and at jacksonadvocateonline.com. We invite comments from our readers about for-profit private prisons.