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How to Turn Back a Giant

What’s the best way to push profit-seeking corporations out of the public sphere? Don’t let them take over in the first place.

Residents of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania were thrilled to learn this lesson with their recent victory against Geo Group, a giant of the private prison industry.

Geo turned into a household name for profiting off the youth and family detention centers that have become hallmarks of President Donald Trump’s inhumane immigration policies. But the company’s shady practices go way back. Geo Group has misspent millions in federal funds, only to manage facilities that one federal judge called “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions.”

Despite its abhorrent track record, Geo has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal government contracts in the last year, with a staggering $9.7 million lining the pockets of CEO George Zoley in 2017.

In Lancaster County, Geo was bidding to take over the reentry services the county provided to formerly incarcerated people as they left the prison system.

But Lancaster County already had an established reentry program. A coalition of nonprofits known as the Reentry Management Organization had been providing community-led reintegration services with proven success.

Those nonprofits were left in the dust when the county decided to change the funding process to a bidding-style competition. A whirlwind of changing standards and opaque processes left the nonprofits confused. Meanwhile, Geo Group capitalized, putting forward the only bid to provide parolee services.

Lancaster residents were surprised and angry to learn that local nonprofits might be replaced by prison profiteers. They leapt into action, planning town halls and packing prison board meetings. Religious leaders, nonprofit leaders, and formerly incarcerated citizens turned the normally empty gatherings into standing-room-only events.

“I don’t think [county officials] expected such a community response — or, as they called it, a distraction,” Michelle Hines, an organizer with Lancaster Stands Up, told me.

“It’s a bad company,” Hines added of Geo Group, citing her concerns over for-profit prisons in general, and Geo’s contract to build controversial immigrant family detention centers in particular. “I know I’ve lived in Lancaster my whole life and I don’t want them in my county.”

Neither did many people in Lancaster. Ultimately, the county was swayed, rejecting the company’s bid. Hines and other members of the community are now pushing the county to let the local nonprofits maintain control over the reentry program.

“These big corporations over and over again come into our communities, buy people off, and then are able to perpetrate harm against everybody here,” Hines said. “For a really long time I’d been watching this happen and it just felt like an impossible thing to fight back against, and I feel so empowered to be in a position to have enough people power in our community to be able to fight back.”

Lancaster Stands Up has been organizing in southern Pennsylvania for two years now. The collective came together in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, and has since put pressure on elected officials across the political spectrum in an effort to recast established politics into something that works for people in their community.

“To do work to try to make sure that the people — the regular, everyday working people — have a voice, and to see that actually come to fruition in such a concrete way,” Hines said, “is really incredible.”

Hines hopes the victory against Geo will help other communities railing against what often feel like insurmountable odds. “I hope we can provide some inspiration to other groups that are fighting and feel like they’re up against an impossible system and incredible power, to know to keep at it.”

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