Prisoner of policy: For-profit corrections company hits the skids

Photograph by Eli Ayeke

Geo Group Inc. seeks ‘office space’ designation for desired reentry facility

One of the nation’s most controversial private prison companies is finding it hard to open a franchise in Sacramento.

On March 9, the city’s Planning and Design Commission denied Geo Group Inc. a streamlined path to opening a reporting center for its paroled inmates in north Sacramento. According to city officials, the corporation has a contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons to run a day reporting center in the region and picked 2454 Del Paso Boulevard for its location.

The prolific Geo Group operates more than 60 for-profit prisons across the United States. But one thing that doesn’t appear on its local application is the myriad legal challenges it’s faced. In March 2012, an investigation by the Department of Justice concluded that officials at GEO’s juvenile-detention center in Mississippi were turning a blind eye to officer brutality, inmate-on-inmate rape and teenage prostitution and were “deliberately indifferent to gang affiliations within the ranks of the correctional staff.” Reviewing similar findings in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, federal Judge Carlton Reeves called GEO Group’s Mississippi facility “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts.”

In 2014, GEO Group was hit with a class-action lawsuit alleging it pushed thousands of immigration detainees into forced labor in violation of American anti-slavery laws. That suit is ongoing. In 2015, a group of female correctional officers working for GEO Group in Arizona filed an action claiming they had been retaliated against for bringing sexual harassment concerns to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

It is not, however, GEO Group’s documented record of abuses while maximizing shareholder profits that has slowed its progress in Sacramento. According to Principal Planner Sandra Yope, the application GEO Group filed for its day reporting center listed the facility as “an office space” rather than a correctional facility. That classification would have allowed GEO to skip getting a conditional use permit, thus limiting input from neighbors, local businesses, law enforcement and other stakeholders.

Since the day reporting center would conduct drug testing, finger printing, DNA sampling and random searches, Yope’s team decided that it qualified as a correctional facility. “These types of services that were to be provided go well beyond the scope of a typical office use,” Yope told the commissioners March 9, defending her decision.

Brett Jolley, an attorney for GEO Group, strongly disagreed. “They are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Prisons, but not in their custody,” Jolley said of the individuals whom the facility would serve. “They’re not shackled. They’re not accompanied. They come of their own volition.”

Jolley added the day reporting center would employ no correctional officers.

City staff confirmed that the Sacramento County Probation Department didn’t have to obtain a conditional use permit before opening a similar reporting center on Del Paso Boulevard because it’s an official branch of county law enforcement.

A group of residents and business owners spoke out against the project, claiming it would exacerbate the neighborhood’s ongoing crime problems, as well as hinder an ongoing effort to revitalize the boulevard.

Three former prison inmates who have been assisted by GEO Group’s rehabilitation services in Stockton and Napa spoke in favor of the project. Each said GEO’s programs for drug treatment, counseling and job training were major assets in rebuilding their lives.

“According to the state, my name was AA7435,” Robert Masara told the commissioners. “The day I showed up to the day reporting center, I was Mr. Masara again. … I paroled in August of 2011. I’ve never looked back since. They helped me get my family back.”

The commissioners voted unanimously that GEO Group must seek a conditional use permit to move its project forward. The decision cannot be appealed.

One person who was glad was Larry Glover-Meade, a Woodlake resident who reminded the commissioners that a quick scan of newspaper headlines paints a very different picture of GEO Group than the one offered by Masara and others.

“It’s a publicly traded company with revenues of a billion and a half dollars a year,” Glover-Meade pointed out. “They have a track record of maybe not running the best facilities. … You can read about them—they’re currently being sued for violating federal slavery laws.”

This isn’t the first attempt GEO has made at opening a local reentry facility. In 2014, the company offered the county $15 million over 30 years to take over a 140-acre site that once hosted a Probation Department boys ranch for delinquent youth. The GEO bid was to open a residential reentry center at the location, on the outskirt town of Sloughhouse, but county supervisors took no action, according to online meeting minutes.

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