On July 16, several activist groups gathered at GEO Group headquarters, currently under construction in Boca Raton, Florida, to protest immigrant detention and mass incarceration. GEO Group is widely known for its for-profit private prisons, which are being used by state and federal governments for various purposes, including “privatized corrections, detention, mental health treatment and stress control.”
George Zoley, CEO of GEO Group, graduated from Florida Atlantic University, also located in Boca Raton. Zoley is the former chairman and is a current member of the Board of Trustees at FAU. In 2013 Zoley boasted the title of being the “highest paid corrections officer” in the United States. Meanwhile, GEO Group has shifted its focus to include locking up undocumented immigrants all for the sake of profit.
Because of GEO Group’s relentless desire for capital, the corporation employs ruthless tactics including low wages, insufficient training and understaffing facilities, thus leading to the neglect of those being detained. In some circumstances, this has even lead to the deaths of prisoners.
Private prisons like GEO Group’s often contract “lockup quotas” with state and local officials that require that prisons be filled. When beds are not filled, taxpayers pay the price. In South Florida, public and private prisons are incentivized to detain a minimum of 950 people at any given time. Detainees also observed and alleged that guards were blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic to people being detained.
According to Freedom For Immigrants, detainees from across the country were often referred to as racist names, including “monkey” and “King Kong”. At GEO Group’s very own facilities in Southern California, detainees reported that guards called people “Haitian trash”. A prisoner in an Adelanto, California facility reported that they were targeted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The guard told them that they “should be used to this kind of prejudice.” The rhetoric surrounding Trump has emboldened hatred toward immigrants and minorities of all backgrounds, contributing to such state-sanctioned violence, racism and outright bigotry in the United States.
Several police officers were already on the scene when protesters from several groups and organizers from DSA arrived at the Boca Raton headquarters of GEO Group with signs and banners calling for the end of immigrant detention and for the abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As more protestors arrived, drivers passing by could be heard honking and shouting “TRUMP!” repeatedly.
Organizers from DSA gave a speech demanding that any public servants refuse all contributions from GEO Group and every other private prison contractor, that a path be cleared for DACA recipients, that ICE be abolished, and that immigrant detention and separation of families come to an end.
An attorney and organizer named Alex from Broward County spoke about being a lover of freedom and “a product of Haiti, the first country to ever declare Black people free from slavery.” Alex reminded folks that “this fight with ICE is a fight with white supremacy and all of its forms.”
Furthermore, Alex stated that “there is no way to abolish ICE without simultaneously asking to abolish the police and the violent ways it is stealing Black people from their loved ones. It is not complete without the strong denouncement of the mistreatment of Indigenous people whose blood, sweat, and bodies are scattered over this land, whose heritage is being threatened every day…if we want this fight to be a fight for all people, for Black people like Therese Patricia Okoumou who can climb up the Statue of Liberty to be able to come into the space and bring her struggle as woman, as Black and as immigrant.”
Alex went on to say, “We want a struggle where we can bring our whole self all the time.” At the end of Alex’s speech, they described their hope for “a world where all people are truly free, for all people living on occupied land, from the people of Puerto Rico to the people of Palestine, where we all feel accepted and safe.”
Another organizer spoke briefly about Movimiento Cosecha, explaining that the movement’s goal is to seek amnesty for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. There were several chants calling for the abolishment of ICE, and then the protest was ended suddenly. Organizers asked people to leave the current location and head towards Broward Transitional Center (BTC) in Pompano Beach, where members of several organizations calling for the abolishment of ICE had locked themselves down to the gates and entrances of the exterior of the detention center.
Over at BTC in Pompano, seven organizers in groups from South Florida including Black Lives Matter Alliance, Broward DSA, Broward Immigrant Justice Coalition, Everglades Earth First! and Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs had locked themselves down to a facility owned by none other than GEO Group. This facility is the current primary source for detaining immigrants in Broward County.
Two activists locked themselves down to a car owned by one of the activists, which was blocking the main entrance. “Abolish ICE” and other slogans in opposition to GEO Group were spray-painted on the car. Later, BSO and first responders destroyed the vehicle by completely ripping the top off like a can of sardines to remove the activists from the vehicle.
Three other people locked down together, forming a triangle on the ground while chanting loudly, and at one point shouting over an ICE agent declaring it an unlawful gathering. Lastly, two other organizers locked themselves to separate pedestrian entrances with bicycle locks around their necks.
All seven activists were later arrested and six were sent to Broward County Main Jail and the seventh taken to North Broward Bureau. Mathi Mugilan Paguth Arivalan, one of the protestors arrested and sent to Broward Main said, “They kept us in the back of a van without any air on. It felt like more than 100 degrees inside. They left us inside there for three hours.”
GEO group quickly responded to the protesters’ display of courage by stating, “Their actions are misguided and based on a mischaracterization of our role as a long-standing service provider to the federal government, and totally ignore the fact that we have absolutely no role in setting immigration policy, nor have we ever advocated for or against immigration enforcement or detention policies.”
The statement comes as an ironic disconnection from current material conditions in which George Zoley is complicit in today’s immigration policies. GEO is profiting from private prisons and the labor of undocumented immigrants and people unjustly incarcerated here in the United States and abroad.
As those arrested were being released, they spoke of another action being planned in Miramar. Two days later, on Wednesday, July 18, protesters locked down to one another and occupied the intersection at SW 145th Avenue & SW 29th Street all day, thus leading to nearly a week of actions in South Florida.
Seventeen protesters were arrested and held in a cell together, and one person was brought before a judge and charged with unlawful assembly and obstructing a highway. Protesters claim that undocumented immigrants are forced to stand in the hot sun with no access to water or bathrooms at the Miramar ICE facility for hours on end, waiting to be seen for monthly check-ins. ICE responded by denying these claims and giving basic concessions by considering the possibility of installing a water fountain outside the office in Miramar.