ICE's Biggest Private-Prison Contractor Threatens to Sue Florida Civil-Rights Activists

photos: Eflatmajor7th / Wikimedia Commons; Chantal Renaud/Flickr CC

Boca Raton's GEO Group is Immigration and Customs Enforcement's single biggest contractor, with more than $400 million worth of deals to run private prisons, including the Broward Transitional Center, a site housing "low-priority" detainees. As the Trump administration has ripped families apart and jailed immigrants with no criminal records, GEO has come under heavy fire for making huge profits from those policies.

Now, GEO has a new strategy to combat that criticism: threatening to sue the civil-rights activists mounting the protests.

On Friday, GEO sent a cease-and-desist letter to Dream Defenders, a Florida group that has organized statewide protests against GEO and, in July, convinced the Florida Democratic Party to stop taking any donations from private-prison companies like GEO. In the letter, GEO claims that Dream Defenders are using "false information" to incite violence against GEO facilities.

"It is clear that Dream Defenders published knowingly false statements regarding GEO in an attempt to incite others to engage in potentially violent and harmful behavior directed at GEO facilities," reads the letter sent from Philadelphia-based attorney Carolyn P. Short of the Holland & Knight firm.

In a scathing response, the group hit back this morning with a point-by-point dissection of the supposedly "false" claims it had made against GEO Group and offering evidence that each criticism — including allegations that GEO is "caging children" and jailing poor black, Latino, and white people — is, in fact, accurate.

"You had the audacity to allege that the Dream Defenders, a group of young people of color who are advocating for our basic human rights, are exhibiting 'threatening and violent behavior toward GEO,'" the group says in its response letter. "We are advocating the end to your harmful and violent carceral behavior, which countless news reports, lawsuits, and government investigations have already established."

Dream Defenders, which was founded in 2012, has regularly protested GEO Group's private prison work, including in a new video series launched in July called "Dream Killers." The series uses a child actor to talk about GEO's political influence. The Defenders are also planning nationwide GEO protests tomorrow.
In its cease-and-desist letter, GEO claims those protests amount to an "intentional campaign to not only defame GEO's business reputation, but incite disruption at GEO's facilities around the country." By encouraging national protests, Dream Defenders' "proposed actions go well beyond the parameters of protected free speech (by) encouraging threatening and violent behavior toward GEO and its employees."

What's more, Short claims in her letter, Dream Defenders have incited that blowback with "false statements." Specifically, GEO singles out claims that the for-profit prison company "separates families," that the company "cages" children, that GEO "puts Black, Latino, and poor White people into jail," and that the company exerts "improper influence over the United States political system."

GEO also claims that Dream Defenders published an "incorrect" list of politicians who have taken cash from the firm, including Florida's Rick Scott, Adam Putnam, and Lauren Book, plus New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Those donations, of course, are a matter of public record and have been well-documented in the press.)

In its response this morning, Dream Defenders tackle those allegedly false claims one by one.

The claim that GEO is "caging children"?

"You hold children behind bars, fences, and/or in locked facilities," Dream Defenders note. "GEO’s own website details facilities across the country used to detain children for federal and state governments. Your own promotional materials refer to 'standard GTI security equipment such as steel cages' in your transportation fleet. Just this week, conditions in your Karnes County, TX facility have forced hundreds of children and fathers into a strike to protest what they describe as 'being treated like animals.'"

What about the claim the company separates families?

"GEO’s CEO has highlighted the business opportunities that come with the Trump administration’s immigration policies in calls with analysts," Dream Defenders write. "GEO not only maintains the physical walls separating inmates and detained immigrants from their families, but has even profited off of the few moments of connection detainees have over the phone."

It's clear that GEO does incarcerate thousands of poor black, Latino, and white people, the group writes, adding that "just because GEO is not directly responsible for sentencing or deciding which families to incarcerate, detain or deport does not absolve the company of participating in a racist system of mass incarceration that has its roots in slavery and Jim Crow laws."

Dream Defenders also note that GEO has given millions to political action committees and writes that "'lawfully' influencing our politicians with donations is not the same as exercising it morally or properly." The group links to recent news stories that watchdogs are suing over GEO's donations to Trump's SuperPAC and another story that GEO recently moved its annual conference to Trump's golf resort in Doral.

GEO's cease-and-desist letter demands that the Dream Defenders delete their old social media posts and quit spreading "intentionally false and defamatory statements" about GEO.

Dream Defenders say there's no chance they'll do so.

"Threatening us with lawsuits won’t stop us from exposing the truth about what the GEO Group and other Dream Killers are doing to our communities," the group writes in its response letter. "Groups around the country are gearing up to stand against you this week. You’ll need more than flimsy legal maneuvers to stop us."
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink
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.