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Private Prison Executive Isn’t Telling The Truth About GEO’s Record Of Juvenile Abuse

By Nicole Flatow  

"Private Prison Executive Isn’t Telling The Truth About GEO’s Record Of Juvenile Abuse"

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In the wake of the announcement that Florida Atlantic University would name its football stadium after private prison corporation GEO Group for a hefty price, an executive at the company is disseminating false and misleading information about the firm’s practices and documented abuses at its facilities.

In both a statement to reporters and an op-ed, GEO Vice President for Corporate Relations Pablo Paez has falsely claimed that horrific abuses at a GEO juvenile detention facility in Mississippi described by the Department of Justice as “systematic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls” occurred before GEO took control of the prison, even though both DOJ and court documents clearly show otherwise. ACLU National Prison Project Staff Attorney Carl Takei explains in a column:

Last week, [Paez] e-mailed a statement to reporters decrying the news coverage as “unfair,” particularly with regard to Walnut Grove. He wrote:

“For instance, a number of media reports cite problems at a facility formerly operated by GEO in Mississippi, the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, quoting a report by the Department of Justice issued in November 2010. What those media reports fail to disclose is that our company only assumed management of the facility in late August 2010, and the findings related to problems that preceded GEO’s involvement at the facility, when it was operated by [a] different private operator.”

What’s stunning about this statement is that the timeline it describes is simply false. In fact, the DOJ issued its report condemning GEO in March 2012, almost two years after GEO’s August 2010 takeover of Walnut Grove (the prison was part of the spoils of GEO’s merger with fellow prison operator Cornell Companies). The DOJ report pointedly noted: “Following GEO and Cornell’s merger, key personnel, policies and training at WGYCF [Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility] did not change substantially, despite GEO’s claim that it made corrective reforms to reflect the GEO philosophy.” Additionally, GEO’s statement completely ignores the March 26, 2012 federal court order in a lawsuit against Walnut Grove, which noted that only days before the court’s ruling, the “facility remained so understaffed that a teenage offender was brutally attacked by several other offenders while only one staffer was on site.”

A longer excerpt from Paez’s statement was published by the Broward Palm Beach New Times, and Paez made a similar false statement in a column in the Palm Beach Post, writing, “our company only assumed management of the facility in late 2010, and the challenges at the facility preceded GEO’s involvement.”

For more on why this is blatantly false, the ACLU has a timeline of events that even more clearly articulates GEO’s involvement in what a federal judge called “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.” In that scathing consent decree, which resulted from a lawsuit by the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves described the conditions this way:

Those allegations … far exceeded mere breaches of the United States Constitution; the investigation uncovered pervasive violations of state and federal civil and criminal law and a wholesale lack of accountability by prison officials. For example, staff of the WGYCF and those responsible for overseeing and supervising the youth engaged in sexual relationships with the youth; they exploited them by selling drugs in the facility; and the youth, “handcuffed and defenseless[,] have been kicked, punched, and beaten all over their bodies.” They are frequently subjected to chemical restraints for the most insignificant of infractions and are denied necessary medical care.

What’s more, Judge Carlton A. Reeves pointed out that GEO Group made absolutely no effort to remedy this behavior, even in the face of a known DOJ investigation and ongoing litigation. Reeves continued:

Those youth, some of whom are mere children, are at risk every minute, every hour, every day. Without Court intervention, they will continue to suffer unconstitutional harms, some of which are due to aberrant and criminal behavior. Nothing has curtailed actions of the staff and indifference of management officials to the constant violations, even though the parties and their experts have been monitoring, investigating and conducting on-site visits constantly since before the lawsuit was filed and during the pendency of this action. Moreover, the fact that the DOJ dared to begin its investigation in October 2010 has not caused the defendants to transform the facility into one that complies with the United States Constitution. But even more astounding is the fact that the notice of the fairness hearing itself did not cause the defendants to change course. The testimony established that only two days before the hearing, the facility remained so understaffed that a teenage offender was brutally attacked by several other offenders while only one staffer was on site. As of the date of the hearing, according to testimony, management has done nothing to address staffing issues. WGYCF has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.

This is the case from which Paez is now attempting to distance GEO, even though its connection to the facility is memorialized in both official court documents and the DOJ’s report. And it’s not an isolated incident. GEO Group and its subsidiary GEO Care have faced fines for “serious shortcomings in patient care” at its mental health facilities and has been the subject of numerous reports of juvenile abuse, deaths, and riots. Paez also claims GEO Group doesn’t engage in lobbying, even though GEO and its fellow private prison corporations have spent millions on campaign donations and professional lobbying firms. But then again, GEO officials are no strangers to misrepresentations. Last year, GEO Group Senior Vice President of Project Development Thomas Wierdsma testified under oath that lying to a federal agency would be just fine.

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