Cover Ups, Corruption and Death: What Private Prison Co. Doesn’t Want You to Know about Its Stadium Sponsorship

The real story behind how the largest private prison company bought the naming rights to Florida Atlantic University’s football stadium.

February 22, 2013  |  

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This week, Florida Atlantic University announced a deal to rename its football stadium after GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the world. The deal came with a $6 million dollar price tag, the “largest one-time gift in the history of FAU athletics.”

But GEO Group has a history of human rights abuses that it would rather keep secret, especially once 30,000 screaming football fans begin seeing the company’s corporate sponsorship. So, in all the excitement surrounding the announcement, GEO took to quietly covering up parts of its shady past–by scrubbing its Wikipedia page.

As Brave New Foundation’s Jesse Lava reported, a GEO Group employee deleted the entire “controversies” section of the company’s Wikipedia page and replaced it with some glowing propaganda. Before GEO’s lackey doctored the article, it outlined a slew of horrific abuses in the company’s prisons, including reports of squalid conditions and the deaths of dozens of prisoners.

Wikipedia editors quickly noticed the changes and restored it to its original form Wednesday evening. The highly educational, yet alarming article is available for your perusal–controversies and all– here. And just before they changed it back, Wikipedia took a jab at the company that tried to game its netizen-dependent editing process, posting this delightful disclaimer on the top of the page:

“The article appears to be written like an advertisement. Please help improve it by rewriting promotional content from a neutral point of view and removing any inappropriate external links.”

But the Wikipedia cover-up is just the beginning of this story’s deceit. Details are emerging on how the GEO’s stadium buyout is only part of a university-prison circle jerk of unprecedented proportions. As the New York Times notes, GEO Chairman George Zoley, and several other employees in the ranks, are all alumni of Florida Atlantic University. And GEO Group’s headquarters sits only four miles away from campus. GEO and university officials laughably claim that the deal is strictly philanthropic, and in no way, shape or form a corporate sponsorship, or, worse, a way to recruit new employees and desensitize people to the horrible private of for-profit prisons.

But marketing professionals have trouble taking that claim in good faith. They say slapping your name in huge letters over an ocean-view stadium hosting America’s most revered sport is probably more than an act of compassion.

“If it’s pure philanthropy, you don’t ask for your name to go on the stadium,” Don Sexton, a Columbia University marketing professor told The Huffington Post. “The only reason you want your name on the stadium is because you want to get something back.”

HuffPost’s Chris Kirkham reports a potential ulterior motive for GEO’s $6 million dollar deal with FAU. Private prison critics say the public university donation is part of a grand plan to “gain influence with state and local public officials who decide whether to hand out contracts.” Kirkham notes that GEO has a rich history of shelling out for favors:

“For the last three election cycles, the GEO Group has donated more than $1.2 million to the Florida Republican Party. Republicans in the state legislature last year came close to approving a massive expansion of private prisons in south Florida, a deal that the GEO Group mentioned frequently in calls with investors.”

Unfortunately, the local press has swallowed the prison company’s propaganda. The Florida Sun-Sentinel praised the deal for going “a long way toward addressing the financial challenges facing FAU’s athletics program.” The paper even made a suggestion for the new, $6-million name: “Owlcatrez”– a pun on the university’s mascot.
But many civil rights groups say that universities shouldn’t prop up a company soiled by human rights abuses simply to support oversized football stadiums. GEO Group runs a string of for-profit prisons that violate basic human rights. As SB Nation reports, “The company was the operator of the infamous Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, a prison for 13- to 22-year-old inmates convicted as adults for crimes committed as juveniles. A 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, as detailed by National Public Radio, found that prison personnel engaged in “systemic, egregious and dangerous practices,” from failing to provide educational and medical services to actively assisting and engaging in gang fights. The report found that prison staff had engaged in sexual activity with inmates “among the worst that we’ve seen in any facility anywhere in the nation,” activity which included the prison warden taking an inmate out of the facility to a motel for sex.”

Steven Hsieh is an editorial assistant at AlterNet and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.