The GEO Group, the second-largest private-prison operator in America, is headquartered in Boca Raton and loves greasing the Florida political system. GEO is one of the most powerful political donors in the state. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Republican politician who hasn't accepted a few thousand dollars in campaign bucks from the giant, and more than a fair share of local Democrats have done the same.
That's why a pledge today from all four major Democratic candidates for Florida governor — former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, and independent businessman Chris King — might signal a broader, leftward shift in criminal-justice policy from Democrats statewide. Today the civil rights group Dream Defenders announced that all four candidates have signed the group's "Freedom Pledge" and promised not to take a cent from the private-prison industrial complex.
"These companies get paid for locking people in our neighborhoods up and then pay politicians to make it easier for them to do it,” Dream Defenders co-director Rachel Gilmer said today in a news release. “Florida is a playground for private prison companies.”
GEO's reputation is horrid among advocates for criminal-justice reform. The company has been sued repeatedly for allegedly forcing criminal inmates and immigration detainees held on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to work in order to pay for food and basic toiletries. The American Civil Liberties Union accused ICE guards at a GEO facility in Colorado last year of torturing Iraqi detainees, and a GEO facility outside Los Angeles in 2017 was named the deadliest ICE detention center of the year.
The company's stock took a nosedive in 2016 when President Barack Obama announced the federal government would stop using private-prison facilities, but Donald Trump reversed that decision almost immediately after taking power. Not coincidentally, GEO dumped cash into Trump's presidential campaign, has hired Attorney General Jeff Sessions' former aides, and in the past year held a major party at the Trump National Doral Miami.
In Florida, both Republican gubernatorial candidates, Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis, have accepted GEO money this year.
The four Democratic candidates, meanwhile, met onstage in South Florida last night at the Miramar Cultural Center for a four-person primary debate, and toward the end of the event, ErrDaisha Floyd, an 18-year-old Dream Defenders member from Tampa, asked the candidates how they felt about the private-prison industry. Floyd told the candidates she has four uncles who are incarcerated.
"They provide a direct incentive to contract-holders to keep a large prison population," Floyd said. She then asked directly if the candidates would "pledge not to accept donations from these groups" and asked how each candidate would work to rid the state capital of the prison industry's influence.
All four candidates made the pledge on the spot. Graham raised her right hand in the air and promised to "end the privatization of the prison system" and said she would help transition Florida's prison system into some sort of rehabilitation-centered model.
Gillum concurred, saying, "I believe private prisons should be illegal and should not exist."
King, too, made the pledge (and joked that the prison industry probably isn't keen on donating to him either) and then went a step further by promising to cut the nonviolent-offender population in Florida prisons over the next decade and end the death penalty permanently.
Levine also made the pledge. "We all obviously agree that these private prisons are horrible," he said. "We are clearly giving people an incentive to lock people up."
The Dream Defenders told New Times that it hopes to make private-prison donations as politically toxic to Democrats as, say, handouts from the National Rifle Association. This year, the group has partnered with other advocacy groups, including the Florida Immigrant Coalition, to push more candidates to sign the pledge. In addition to the four gubernatorial contenders, ten other candidates have promised to stop accepting private-prison cash, including Miami congressional candidates Mary Barzee Flores, David Richardson, and Michael Hepburn.
"We need leaders who can get our people out of prison, our money out of prison and prison money out of politics,” Florida Immigrant Coalition director Maria Rodriguez said today in a statement. “We can't tolerate the pain of families ripped apart by mass incarceration and deportation, all for the sake of profit. Racism, xenophobia and profiteering of these practices leaves orphans and widows traumatized by the brutal and insatiable machine that sees our lives as disposable commodities.”
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.