How to Turn Back a Giant

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What’s the best way to push profit-seeking corporations out of the public sphere? Don’t let them take over in the first place. Residents of Lancaster County, Penn. were thrilled to learn this lesson with their recent victory against Geo Group, a giant of the private prison industry.

Geo Group has gained notoriety for its shady practices, with a rap sheet as varied as the so-called services it provides. Geo has turned into a household name in recent weeks for profiting off the youth and family detention centers that have become hallmarks of President Donald Trump’s inhumane immigration policies. But the company’s heinous practices predate Trump — though their highly suspect lobbying relationship with the current administration is well-documented.

The private prison profiteers have misspent millions in federal funds, only to manage facilities that one federal judge called “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions.” Despite their abhorrent track record, Geo has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal government contracts in the last year, with a staggering $9.7 million lining the pockets of CEO George Zoley in 2017.

In Lancaster County, Geo found a smaller target than the family detention centers currently at the top of the headlines. The company was bidding to take over the reentry services the county provided to formerly incarcerated people as they left the prison system. Unfortunately for Geo, Lancaster County already had an established reentry program. A coalition of nonprofits known as the Reentry Management Organization had been providing community-led reintegration services with documented success.

But those nonprofits, which were funded on an ad-hoc basis, were left in the dust when the county decided to change the funding process to a bidding-style competition. A whirlwind of changing standards and priorities, along with opaque proposal processes, left the nonprofits confused, as the services they’d long provided were no longer aligned with the  county’s goals. Meanwhile, Geo Group capitalized, putting forward the only bid to provide parolee services.

The company had been circling Lancaster for some time, Michelle Hines, an organizer with Lancaster Stands Up, said. Lancaster residents were surprised and angry to learn that local nonprofits might be replaced by prison profiteers, and leapt into action, planning town halls and packing prison board meetings to protect a valuable community institution.

“I don’t think they were expecting to have to make this decision in the light of day,” Hines said. “Municipal government stuff, people don’t usually pay attention. There’s usually like two people at the county commissioner’s meetings. I don’t think they expected such a community response — or, as they called it, a distraction.”

People filled the commissioner’s meetings — religious leaders, nonprofit leaders, formerly incarcerated citizens — as the normally empty gatherings turned into standing room only events. Hines says the furor was a testament to how negatively the community felt about Geo Group, but also how well local nonprofits were functioning in that space for years. “They had a level of service that could only come from people in the community that really, really care.”

“I didn’t know these local organizations before and how successful they were, but I did know Geo Group and that it’s a bad company,” Hines said, citing her concerns over for-profit prisons in general, and Geo’s contract to build controversial immigrant family detention centers in particular. “I know I’ve lived in Lancaster my whole life and I don’t want them in my county.”

Neither did many people in Lancaster. The mass attention to the proposed contract took county commissioners by surprise. Ultimately, the county was swayed by the display of distrust in Geo. While the next steps remain unclear, the county rejectedthe company’s bid to manage the reentry program at a packed town meeting earlier this month. While Hines and other members of the community are still pushing the county to let the local nonprofits maintain control over the reentry program, they’re celebrating Geo’s denial.

Stronger Together

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