In February, Florida Atlantic University reached a $6 million corporate naming rights deal with GEO Group for the university football stadium where the Owls play.
GEO Group is the second largest private prison firm in the United States and has been wracked by a series of scandals. Its Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi was the subject of a Justice Department investigation that found “due to the unconstitutional operation of WGYCF, youth were sexually preyed upon by staff and all too frequently suffered grievous harm, including death.” Texas closed the GEO Group-run Coke County Juvenile Justice Center after investigators found feces present on the floor/walls, locked emergency exit doors and guards over-using pepper spray on youth prisoners. These are just some of the lowlights of the company’s myriad scandals, which also include significant understaffing and sexual harassment of employees by fellow staff.
GEO Group’s main niche has been profiting from immigration detention centers which have helped facilitate deportations and the separation of families. The most infamous of these has been the Broward Detention Center in Florida.
Members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance successfully infiltrated that facility and found “that most detainees were jailed for minor offenses, such as driving without a valid driver’s license. The worst part about it wasn’t really even the treatment they received from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE); but rather how the GEO staff and the GEO guards treat all detainees. They treated us all like animals. Several detainees attempted suicide …”
Recognizing the damaging effects that GEO Group was having on their local community and the notorious human rights abuses perpetrated by the company, a group of students and community members rose to oppose the naming rights deal by forming the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition.
The coalition marched, demonstrated, protested and even peacefully sat in at the Florida Atlantic University president’s office to confront the school about its relationship with the private prison profiteer.
The grassroots movement soon went viral and public pressure began to grow. The misdeeds of GEO Group came under more fire after it was caught trying to scrub its Wikipedia page of mention of negative stories and scandals. The ACLU began requesting information about the sponsorship deal. Even the University Senate voted to oppose the GEO Group deal.
Late on April 1st, the direct action, pressure and protest got the goods. GEO Group issued a press release stating that it will rescind its $6 million corporate relationship that would have renamed the football stadium. The CEO wrote: “What was originally intended as a gesture of GEO’s goodwill surprisingly evolved into an ongoing distraction to both of our organizations.” What he calls a distraction, we should call effective community organizing to resist this most recent encroachment of and effort to normalize the prison industrial complex.
The activists of the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition and their supporters bravely saved the Florida Atlantic University Owls from the savage irony of having to lionize a company that may very well be imprisoning residents of its community. They courageously attacked the formalizing of the “school to prison pipeline.” They also were able to highlight the abuses of the private prison industry, the prison industrial complex and the injustices in immigration detention and immigration law. While progressives, civil libertarians and radicals may be familiar with these excesses, the coalition was able to successfully share these arguments with sports fans, gain their support to demand that sports be used for human uplift, and show again that there is a political side to the world of sports.