ThinkProgress

For-profit prison company threatens anti-ICE group with lawsuit for telling world what they do

City of Boca Raton police officers watch as protesters gather in front of the GEO Group headquarters to speak out against the company that manages private prisons across the United States on May 4, 2015 in Boca Raton, Florida. (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A protest campaign targeting for-profit detention company GEO Group with numerous nationwide actions at facilities connected to President Donald Trump’s ramped-up deportations has been threatened with legal action by the company’s high-powered litigators.

Dream Defenders, a Florida-based immigration advocacy organization, received a stern cease-and-desist letter from the company’s lawyers on Friday, four days ahead of a series of planned protests headed by the group at company facilities.

The legal threat is odd on a number of levels, not least of which is that one of the group’s highest-profile successes to date would seem to involve putting money back into GEO Group’s pocket rather than harming its bottom line. The state Democratic Party in Florida recently agreed to stop taking donations from companies like GEO after pressure from the group, taking one potential line item off GEO’s anticipated expenses. The state parties in New York and California have made similar commitments, group leader Rachel Gilmer said in an interview.

But the strangeness of the argument in the letter is far more fundamental, and almost nitpickingly existentialist in nature. The letter’s core logic is that GEO Group can’t be accused of “caging” people and “separating families” because while their staff and material are used to perform those tasks, the driving willpower behind them is governmental. If that seems like a familiar and unpersuasive argument from security service professionals connected to state conduct widely derided on moral grounds, that’s because it’s a rationale with a long history. As the Dream Defenders noted in their response letter, it’s akin to the so-called Nuremberg Defense proferred by Nazi functionaries after World War 2.

“GEO’s cries that befehl ist befehl (an order is an order) will not do,” the group wrote in its response.

Lawyers for Dream Defenders reviewed the threats and decided there’s nothing there before the group drafted that response, group leader Rachel Gilmer told ThinkProgress.

“Our defense is the truth,” Gilmer said. “Their business niche is literally making money off of locking people up. And maybe the police are the ones arresting people and putting people in jail, and maybe the state is responsible for that, but GEO is certainly profiting from being the ones to actually cage people and lock people up.”

The cease-and-desist letter also criticizes the group for noting the heavy financial thumb GEO Group puts on the political scales through donations and lobbying expenditures. There, too, the dark assertions in the letter seem difficult to imbue with sense. After accusing the organizers of “[b]latantly false accusations that GEO asserts improper influence over the United States political system” and asserting that their list of donations is inaccurate, the letter immediately moves the goalposts.

“GEO has at all times lawfully exercised its right to participate in the political process,” wrote Carolyn Short, a partner at the enormous corporate defense firm Holland & Knight, in the letter. The letter does not acknowledge the large difference between impropriety and illegality, though it does also accuse Dream Defenders of providing an inaccurate list of the prison company’s political donations. (The donations cited are reflected in public sources, according to the Miami New Times, which was first to report the blistering exchange of correspondence. The reply letter invites the company to correct the record by providing full, up-to-date listings of its contributions.)

After initially signalling eagerness to help decode the letter’s legalese on behalf of her client, Short instead referred ThinkProgress to a general media inbox. If GEO Group believes that it is possible for political activists to criticize their work making money without committing what the letter called “tortious interference with GEO’s contracts,” it’s unclear why Short couldn’t simply explain to ThinkProgress how such a campaign would be different from this one.

The firm’s aggressive advocacy for GEO Group’s interest in continuing to operate pieces of the Trump deportation carousel unencumbered by public scorn and targeted political action stands in sharp relief to some of its other work. While Short’s letter originated from Holland & Knight’s Philadelphia office, a team of lawyers in its Jacksonville office had earned positive coverage in the legal press earlier this year for their work to improve carceral conditions for Florida inmates with “severe and persistent psychiatric disabilities” — the kind of public-interest litigation that prison reform activists rely upon routinely to advance their causes through the power of the courts rather than just via the public pressure tactics that Dream Defenders are applying to the private prison business.

A threat to sue is a common enough legal tactic. But the story of how this example of the form came to be is a bit unusual. Short’s letter specifically identifies the protests planned for Tuesday as the main cause of the company’s distress. But according to Gilmer, the threat seemed to derive primarily in response to an explainer video featuring an 8-year-old girl.

“Many quotes from their cease-and-desist were pulled from a video of an 8-year-old Dream Defender named Yaya who broke it down in very plan lainguage what GEO Group does, in elementary-school language,” Gilmer said. “They literally feel threatened by an 8-year-old girl who’s making it clear to her peers what GEO Group does.”

The blandly-branded corporation’s central role in the profit-motivated modern U.S. justice system may be familiar to academics and politically engaged adults for whom the phrase “prison-industrial complex” is so familiar as to risk sliding into cliche. But Gilmer said her group’s main motivation in targeting GEO Group and its peer firms is to unmask the capitalist source-code of the Trump deportation machine and the broader carceral system.

“I think they intentionally branded themselves in a way to obfuscate the fact that they make money by locking people up, that they’re in the business of cages,” she said. The activists see the industry’s work to keep out of the limelight reflected in the actions of political leaders, too.

“One of our big demands tomorrow is that politicians need to choose a side,” she said. “It’s not enough to go visit a detention facility. It’s not enough to say you’re against these policies if you’re simultaneously taking money from the companies who make money off of it.”