People Over For-Profit Prisons: a Social Movement in Gary, Indiana

It’s understandable that United States progressives have been caught up in the national quadrennial electoral extravaganza this year. This is no ordinary election season. On the right side of the two party system we have the bizarre, possibly dangerous Donald Trump phenomenon and a potential Republican meltdown at the GOP’s national convention this summer. On the left side we have a remarkable progressive insurgency in the name of the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders. He has tapped the anger of young and white working class voters to challenge the depressing status quo neoliberal Hillary Clinton.

At the same time, however, the delegate math and the smart money still point to a dismal, imperial Hillary presidency and progressives would do well to remember that national, candidate-centered presidential politics isn’t the only politics that matters. Beneath and beyond the national, candidate-centered major party and big media election spectacle, whatever its outcome, there remains the arguably more important politics of grassroots popular organizing and movement-building around issues that matter within and beyond local communities.

The GEO Group: Turning Mass Incarceration Into Gold

One particularly inspiring and instructive example of such people’s activism can be found in the predominantly Black city of Gary, Indiana. A multiracial and multi-ethnic coalition there has been engaged in a remarkable struggle with a powerful private, for-profit prison corporation. The company, GEO Group (hereafter “GEO”) owes its name to George Zoley, its founder and CEO, once described by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) as “America’s Highest Paid ‘Corrections Officer.” Boasting an annual revenue of $1.7 billion, GEO stands in the odious vanguard of the global mass imprisonment state with a distinctively white-supremacist and English-speaking taste for locking down people of color. It manages 104 human warehousing and lock-up facilities, with 87,000 beds and 20,500 employees across four countries: the United States. the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa. Nearly two-thirds (64) of its prisons are located in the U.S., the disparate mass incarceration capital of the world and home to roughly a quarter of the planet’s prisoners – most of them Black and Latino.

Formerly known as “Wackenhut,” the Florida-based GEO is the nation’s second largest private prison firm after Corrections Corporations of America (CCA). It describes itself as “the first fully-integrated equity real estate investment trust specializing in the design, development, financing, and operation of correctional, detention, and community reentry facilities worldwide.” Zoley “earns” $1.5 million a month on the backs of taxpayers, under-paid workers, and of course, inmates – the critical dehumanized raw material for “correctional” profits.

Since its founding 32 years ago, GEO Group has turned the racist nightmare of mass incarceration into gold, pushing “law and order” and nativist prison-state policies while crafting deals that charge government (taxpayers) for empty beds. As CMD reported two and a half years ago:

“the GEO Group has profited from federal and state policies that have led to a dramatic rise in incarceration and detention in the United States – an increase of more than 500 percent over the past three decades. In recent years, with crime rates dropping and sentencing reform spreading, GEO Group has found a new way to keep its profits high: many of its contracts contain bed guarantees or ‘lock up quotas’ that require that a state keep prisons full, and put taxpayers on the hook for empty beds….For many years GEO Group participated in the task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that pushed bills that lengthened time in prison, such as so-called ‘truth-in-sentencing’ and ‘three strikes’ legislation, as models for states to adopt across the nation. Today, locking up non-violent illegal immigrants is a new profit center for the firm.”

Currently more than half of the United States’ immigrant detention beds fall under the for-profit management of GEO.

“A Long Rap Sheet of Abuse and Neglect”

That’s a distressing fact since the company that has what the leading criminal justice reform group Grassroots Leadership (GL) calls “a long rap sheet of abuse, neglect, and misconduct inside its facilities.” An in-depth CMD investigation found that “the company’s cost-cutting strategies lead to a vicious cycle where lower wages and benefits for workers, high employee turnover, insufficient training, and under-staffing results in poor oversight and mistreatment of detained persons, increased violence, and riots.” A fall 2014 GL report detailed GEO’s ghoulish track record, which includes repeated incidents of death-in-custody, overcrowding, denial of medical care, extreme isolation, beatings, and de facto slave labor. In 2012 a federal district judge described conditions in a GEO juvenile detention center in Walnut Grove, Mississippi as “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.” At Walnut Grove as in other GEO Hellholes, juvenile prisoners were endemically raped and pitted against one another in “gladiator-style fights.”

Conditions became so terrible that more than a thousand immigrant prisoners undertook repeated hunger strikes in a GEO detention center in Tacoma, Washington in 2014. As GL reported, “The first hunger strike began on March 7, 2014 at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington. It was a massive resistance involving 1,200 people that lasted 56 days. The strike drew international media attention and prompted Rep. Adam Smith to introduce legislation that sought to improve conditions inside detention centers.”

One of the many disturbances that have erupted in GEO facilities took place in the Central Indiana town of New Castle Indiana nine years ago. Local police and fire departments were called in along with Indiana State Police to quell an uprising sparked when the New Castle police chief tried to discipline prisoners who had just been transported against their will from Arizona (in accord with a “memorandum of understanding” between the company and Arizona’s governor.) The prisoners had been selected for transport for being non-violent and compliant with GEO’s regulations. They were being absurdly punished for obeying the rules. Had they been less obedient in Arizona, they would not have been shipped across the country like chattel.

The Corporate Prison Playbook

Since last fall, GEO has been trying to secure municipal approval to build a sprawling, 800-bed immigrant detention center across the street from Gary’s badly underused airport. In Gary as elsewhere, the company has followed the usual corporate prison playbook: target an economically stressed community and promise “jobs and development.”

It must have figured that the savagely deindustrialized and 84 percent Black city of Gary was a perfect mark. Thirty-two miles south of Chicago, the former leading steelmaking town is plagued by an astronomical poverty rate of 39 percent and a mind-boggling child poverty measure of 61%. “To call Gary a struggling city,” journalist Casey Tolan wrote last December, “is to put it lightly. You can drive down blocks here where every single house is vacant, burned out, or gaping open behind smashed windows. Broadway, the main drag, is lined with big, handsome brick buildings that have every window boarded up.”

It’s a Dickensian, Rust Belt disaster zone on par with Detroit and Camden, New Jersey. The city has lost more than half its population over the last four decades. That’s a big part of why it has an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 abandoned homes, a quarter of its housing stock – a remarkable number in a city of 80,000.

Meanwhile, federal immigration officials in Chicago are already quietly flying detained immigrants back to Mexico on chartered jets leaving from the Gary airport. By GEO’s calculation, the building of a sizeable federal immigrant detention center was overdue in the broad Chicago area.

“We Decided That it was a Moral Issue”

For these and other reasons, GEO probably figured that expansion to Gary would be a slam dunk. If so, GEO was mistaken. When it came with its proposal to the job-starved, poverty-ridden city last fall, the city’s Black Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson was initially supportive. She hailed the boost the projected facility would deliver to the city’s tax base and the 200 jobs it would bring. Those are the standard “public-private partnership” promises.

But then things quickly fell apart for GEO. The prison firm’s Gary profit dreams were dashed by people’s power. The proposal was shot down within a mere twelve days after it was announced. GEO’s plan needed approval from the Gary City Council’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). On November 10th, roughly 100 people crowded into BZA’s hearing room, “chanting slogans and waving signs. The day after the raucous protest,” Tolan reported, “the mayor announced that she had changed her mind and now opposed the proposal. And a few days later, GEO withdrew its request to rezone the property to allow a prison facility.”

GEO was defeated by a diverse protest movement organized by Black activists and clergy, including an exemplary, left-led Black Lives Matter chapter. Together, the multiracial and multi-ethnic Northwest Indiana Interfaith Federation (NIIF), BLM, and a local anti-prison group called 219MIGHT (short for “219 Mass Incarceration GEO Halt Team” [219 being the area code for Northwest Indiana]) raised moral and practical objections to the scheme.

The company’s “strategy was that they thought that Black people would not care,” said Reverend Cheryl Rivera, the NIIF’s Black director. “But the destiny of brown people and black people and disparaged communities are inextricably linked and intertwined,” Rivera added. “We decided that it was a moral issue…The most morally reprehensible thing for me was that it could be even considered in a place like Gary, where 90% of the population is black – that we would even think of being involved with anything that would target black and brown people.”

“We advocate for an end to the criminalization of people,” said local BLM leader Alicia Nunn last fall. Nunn connected the issue with which BLM is mostly strongly associated – racist police shootings – to the broader human rights problem of racist mass arrest and imprisonment: “Mass incarceration goes right along with police brutality…and you’re dealing with a company that has a nine-page rap sheet of human rights violations.”

Practical Political-Economy Considerations

In defeating the project, the Gary activists pointed to the many disturbances sparked by GEO’s exploitative practices. The anti-GEO coalition ran picket lines outside city meetings where the proposal was considered. It distributed news reports on previous complaints and protests at GEO facilities.

Activists also noted that Gary taxpayers would be on the hook to compensate GEO for empty cells and beds. They publicized GEO’s low-wage policies and the terrible conditions endured by both GEO staff and GEO inmates. They noted that few of the jobs promised to Gary would go to local residents (many if not most of whom will be disqualified for consideration by credit and criminal background checks along with other barriers) and that considerable public resources were likely to be spent on handling problems resulting from the proposed facility. The coalition told local citizens that the jobs created wouldn’t be all that good, wouldn’t be all that available to Gary residents, and wouldn’t be worth the costs.

The costs include the branding of Gary as “a prison city.” That’s a poor match for local real estate and commercial interests who are trying to refashion Gary as a Lake Michigan beach town suitable for middle-class summer excursions.

Even the local building trades unions were persuaded not to support the GEO proposal since the company would build its proposed facility with prefabricated materials brought in from out of state.

A Return Engagement

It was a remarkable and rapid local victory for people’s power, human rights, and moral economy over the soulless agenda of a leading private component of the national and global prison-industrial complex – a company that makes its profits from “the criminalization of people” (Nunn). But it’s not over. It never is. After a recent failed attempt to purchase land (under a different name) for a detention complex name in the nearby town of Hobart, GEO is back, knocking again at Gary’s public doors. The global corporation has found a new local ally: the city’s new specially selected (not elected) council member Herb Smith. A conservative black “law and order” advocate, Smith was granted his seat by the Lake County Democratic Party after a sitting council member resigned last February.

Smith is a longstanding Gary bail bondsman. He is also a full-fledged member of the private prison-industrial complex since he is the owner of ICU Monitoring, an “electronic monitoring and offender management” firm in nearby Merrillville, Indiana. He’s a certified public-private ankle-monitor capitalist and his company, ICU, is suspected of having a contractual relationship with GEO.

Three nights ago, the unelected ankle-shackler smirked while activists chanted “No GEO” during a packed city council meeting

Three days ago, 219MIGHT activist Sam Love reports, a GEO representative interviewed by a prison booster on local radio admitted that the company currently lacks any contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a facility in Northwest Indiana. If a GEO detention center goes up without an ICE contract, the city’s taxpayers will be on the hook to pay for every empty bed.

Love gives an accurate translation for the GEO’s standard neoliberal “public-private partnership” rhetoric that GEO and its local allies have used in pushing for an immigrant lock-up facility in Gary: “profit will be privatized and capitalized while the costs and misery will be socialized.”

At a ZBA meeting next Tuesday, GEO will ask again for a change from “industrial” to “commercial” zoning on land across from the city’s airport. The change is required if the company is going to be permitted to expand its noxious reach into Gary. The meeting will be held at Gary City Hall, 401 Broadway, at 3 pm on Tuesday, April 12.

The company and its local government allies seem confident of success. According to the Gary City Council GEO will be hosting an “informational meeting” at the Glen Theatre, 20 W, Ridge Road, on April 29th at 5:30 pm.

However one might be voting or not in the US. presidential sweepstakes this year, concerned citizens and activists in the region are strongly encouraged to attend both events. The great democratic and disruptive power of dedicated, day-to-day popular, grassroots organization and protest is required to block GEO in Gary. It’s also required to undo the broader national crime of mass incarceration and countless other terrible elite projects (e.g. the Bakken Pipeline in Iowa) in the current New Gilded Age of savagely unequal, racist, and heavy-handed, arch-repressive neoliberal capitalism.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).