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Stop Owlcatraz!: Students Push to Stop Prison Corporation from Naming Stadium

Students at FAU stage sit-in at university president's office over multi-million dollar gift from private prison company GEO Group

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Students rallying under the banner "Stop Owlcatraz" at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) occupied the university president's office on Monday to protest the naming rights for the football stadium going to the for-profit prison corporation GEO Group, which has a "horrific, well-publicized record of abuse and neglect."

Image: Anju Maaka via Twitter Last Tuesday, the university announced they were accepting a gift of $6 million from GEO Group in exchange for which FAU's stadium, home of the Owls, would be renamed GEO Group Stadium.

Organizing for the protest began the following day.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

Gonzalo Vizcardo, a student and spokesman for a group calling itself the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition, said the students and other protesters had rallied on the campus Monday morning, then marched to the office of President Mary Jane Saunders to demand that she speak to the group about the naming deal. He said Ms. Saunders did not come out of her office, so about 50 protesters staged a sit-in.

FAU's University Press reports that the group gave Saunders' office a statement that read:

We are protesting because we believe that institutions of higher learning like FAU have the responsibility to stand up to the systemic racism, corruption and human rights violations that define the prison-for-profit system, and advocate instead for the equality and human rights.

UPTV4FAU has video of Saunders reacting to the protesters in her office and offering a moderated, one-hour discussion with students to be held Friday:

Saunders previously said the university is "grateful for this wonderful gift,” of $6 million, the largest in the history of the university's athletics. “It is so exciting to now have a name for our beautiful stadium, and I couldn’t think of a better way to do that than by way of philanthropy. This gift is a true representation of The GEO Group’s incredible generosity to FAU and the community it serves," stated Saunders.

Far from a reputation of "generosity," GEO Group has a "horrific, well-publicized record of abuse and neglect," the ACLU's Carl Takei and Julie Ebenstein point out:

To take just one example: last year, a federal judge issued a blistering order in a joint ACLU/Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit against the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, a GEO prison that held children and teenaged prisoners in Mississippi. Calling the GEO prison a "cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions" and "a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world," the judge ordered mass transfers out of the prison and ordered the company to stop locking children in solitary confinement. This came not long after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a similar report describing staff sexual misconduct at Walnut Grove as "brazen" and among the worst that DOJ had seen "in any facility anywhere in the nation." A month later, the State of Mississippi ended its relationship with GEO.

But Florida offers big business for prison corporations, they continue:

Currently, Florida operates the third-largest prison system in the United States, a $2.2 billion-a-year enterprise overseeing over 100,000 inmates and another 115,000 on community supervision. The prison population has more than doubled since 1990 and nearly quadrupled since 1984.

Of all states, Florida imprisons the second-highest number of prisoners – over 11,000 or approximately 11% of the state prison population – in private facilities. And about 10 miles from the FAU stadium, GEO operates the 700-bed Broward Transition Center, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. The Broward facility is the only immigration detention center in Florida run by a private company, to the tune of an annual $20 million contract with the federal government. BTC is unique in that it is reserved for immigrants who have committed no crime or a nonviolent offense. While many of the detainees pose no threat to the public, the conditions at GEO pose a substantial threat to their health and well being.

Sports writer Dave Zirin adds:

The future of private prisons may lie in warehousing many of these immigrants. It’s a potential windfall worth billions of dollars to a company that already counts its earning with nine zeroes. And it already has been cashing in on this bonanza, running the Broward Transitional Center for immigrants jailed minor nonviolent offenses or for not having their papers in order.

Its record at Broward has been scandalous, according to the Sun Sentinel, which reported on an undercover investigation by immigrants that revealed “incidents of substandard or callous medical care, including a woman taken for ovarian surgery and returned the same day, still bleeding, to her cell, and a man who urinated blood for days but wasn't taken to see a doctor.”

and concludes:

It’s long been said that for too many people of color in the state of Florida, your future is confined to either playing football or ending up in the penitentiary. Universities like Florida Atlantic are supposed to represent an alternative to that kind of dystopic state of affairs. Florida Atlantic may go down in history as the school that dropped all pretense and brought the gridiron and the prison together.

* * *

On a recent episode of the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert offers his take on the GEO Group Stadium:

 

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