Sponsoring a Florida College Football Team Can’t Whitewash a Private Prison Company’s Atrocious Record

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Note: The following blog post originally appeared on the National ACLU Blog of Rights. That post can be seen here

Riled up? Sign this petition urging Florida Atlantic University to walk away from its deal with the GEO Group. The Owl football team should not have to play in Owlcatraz.

In Florida, incarceration is big business. So is college football. There might be some twisted logic, then, to the GEO Group, Inc.’s latest scheme to whitewash its public image. The GEO Group, a for-profit prison corporation headquartered in Boca Raton, announced on Tuesday that it had secured the naming rights to Florida Atlantic University’s football stadium in exchange for a $6 million donation to the university’s athletic program.

FAU president Mary Jane Saunders said of GEO, “We think it’s a wonderful company, and we’re very proud to partner with them.” President Saunders must have been blinded by the size of GEO’s donation, because last time we checked the GEO Group had a horrific, well-publicized record of abuse and neglect. When the plans for the gray multi-story façade of the GEO Group Stadium, which has already been nicknamed “Owlcatraz” by students, were unveiled on Tuesday, so was a stark visual representation of FAU’s shameful willingness to associate itself with a company that is anything but “wonderful.”

To take just one example: last year, a federal judge issued a blistering order in a joint ACLU/Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit against the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, a GEO prison that held children and teenaged prisoners in Mississippi. Calling the GEO prison a “cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions” and “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world,” the judge ordered mass transfers out of the prison and ordered the company to stop locking children in solitary confinement. This came not long after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a similar report describing staff sexual misconduct at Walnut Grove as “brazen” and among the worst that DOJ had seen “in any facility anywhere in the nation.” A month later, the State of Mississippi ended its relationship with GEO.

Making inroads into the Florida corrections system would indeed be a major business boon for the GEO Group. Currently, Florida operates the third-largest prison system in the United States, a $2.2 billion-a-year enterprise overseeing over 100,000 inmates and another 115,000 on community supervision. The prison population has more than doubled since 1990 and nearly quadrupled since 1984.

Of all states, Florida imprisons the second-highest number of prisoners – over 11,000 or approximately 11% of the state prison population – in private facilities. And about 10 miles from the FAU stadium, GEO operates the 700-bed Broward Transition Center, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. The Broward facility is the only immigration detention center in Florida run by a private company, to the tune of an annual $20 million contract with the federal government. BTC is unique in that it is reserved for immigrants who have committed no crime or a nonviolent offense. While many of the detainees pose no threat to the public, the conditions at GEO pose a substantial threat to their health and well being.

Last year, two young people with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, both brought to the U.S. undocumented when they were children, turned themselves in to gain access to BTC and investigate the conditions. They reported seeing lengthy and unnecessary confinement and numerous incidents of substandard medical care. They report a woman returned to her cell bleeding the same day of her ovarian surgery, and a man denied access to medical care for days while he urinated blood. In response to their report, 26 members of Congress demanded an investigation into the quality of medical care provided at BTC.

The $6 million that FAU accepted from GEO this week should not be viewed as a philanthropic gift, but a purchase of 12 years of stadium naming rights, advertising to improve the company’s image after its highly publicized improper treatment of detainees.

It is particularly galling that FAU and GEO made their announcement in the midst ofFAU’s commemoration of Black History Month. Prison profiteers like GEO depend for their profits on the continued large-scale incarceration of young men and women – many of whom are people of color. Nationwide, 58% of the people in prison are African-American or Latino, and 30.3% are between the ages of 18 and 29. (Indeed, one researcher recently found that African Americans and Latinos are even more overrepresented in private prisons than public prisons.). So the FAU Owls football team (most of whom are themselves African-American) will be sponsored by a company whose core business depends on the continued overincarceration of young people who look much like themselves.

TAKE ACTION: Join the ACLU, Beyond Bars, and the FAU community and ask FAU to walk away from GEO’s tainted money.

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Roe v. Wade at 40: A New Generation’s Fight

By Nikki Fisher
ACLU of Florida Field Coordinator

40 years ago today, the Supreme Court upheld the historic decision in Roe v. Wade which recognized that a woman has the right to decide for herself whether or not to have an abortion. My generation often forgets about the important struggle that many men and women underwent to ensure these protections remain a right for all women. But because of a new assault on women’s reproductive freedom, we’re starting to understand how important these rights are and that the fight isn’t over.

As Jennifer Dalven points out on the ACLU’s National Blog of Rights attacks on the right to choose have skyrocketed in recent years, reaching record levels. Politicians in the House have tried to change the definition of rape and some states have passed laws mandating a women undergo an ultrasound and be forced to see images before making the difficult private decision on whether to have an abortion. In Florida, we’ve seen something similar to what is occurring in states all across the country: a state legislature  continuing their assault on the historical rights underlined in Roe.

But across the nation, both men and women have had enough and have told their lawmakers to stop interfering in their personal and private decisions. Despite these clear signs from the American public, some politicians haven’t heard the message.  We will need to keep up the momentum of the past year and continue to make our voices heard if we are to protect the right of a woman and her family to make their own decisions. And we should celebrate our victories.

This November, we stopped Tallahassee politicians from their excessive power grab into medical decisions between women and their doctors and defeated Amendment 6 on November’s ballot, which would have exempted women’s reproductive freedom from the Florida constitution’s guarantee of privacy.  With the help of ACLU supporters across the state, we were able to stop this assault on reproductive freedom, and we once again told politicians to trust women with their own medical decisions.

Another victory for women’s rights is the passage of the Shaheen Amendment. ACLU of Florida President Col. Mike Pheneger worked to lobby for passage of this important change that corrected an injustice faced by our military women.

Numerous politicians who had an extreme view on abortion and birth control were rejected at the polls, and voters in Mississippi rejected a “fetal personhood” amendment that was so extreme many anti-abortion advocates refused to support it. Despite these clear signs from the American public and voters, some politicians still aren’t getting the message.

As my generation celebrates the victories this past year, we have to join forces with the old guard and continue to preserve Roe at the state level and at the federal level. Working with partner organizations, the ACLU of Florida will fight for women in the courts, in the state legislatures, and in Congress. And we ask that you join us in our battle to protect women’s rights. Please join us email network, like us on Facebook, become a member, and tell others about our history.

Roe v. Wade may be 40 years old, but the fight over a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body and her family is far from over. If we stand together, we can defend the protections of Roe v. Wade for the next 40 years and beyond.

Two Recent Victories for LGBT Rights

By Daniel Tilley
ACLU of Florida LGBT Advocacy

This week witnessed two steps forward in the movement for LGBT equality in Florida. First, courageous students at Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola successfully established a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), the first of its kind in the Escambia County School District.

When students tried to form the club last fall, the school denied their application. The ACLU of Florida intervened, and within days, the school reversed course. Now that the school has brought itself into compliance with federal law, the GSA – which is made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, along with straight allies – can work to end bullying, harassment, and discrimination against LGBT students and others.

As the school’s initial resistance to the club shows, this discrimination all too often comes not only from peers but from the very adults who are charged with protecting Florida’s students. The ACLU of Florida applauds the work of these brave students at Booker T. Washington High School.

In a second recent victory, the Board of County Commissioners for Pinellas County voted 6-1 to approve the creation of a domestic-partnership registry (DPR) in Pinellas County, a county with more than 900,000 residents. Through a DPR, same-sex couples can get access to important protections that would otherwise be denied to them, including access to domestic-partner health-insurance coverage and other benefits through a participating employer plan, visitation rights in medical facilities, emergency notification, and rights to certain medical decision-making.

Although the bundle of benefits is small, these benefits are among the most important a couple can have. The ACLU of Florida and other coalition partners, such as Equality Florida, played a substantial role in this effort. Notably, this victory comes on the heels of eight other DPR victories in Florida, and the ACLU of Florida continues to work successfully with coalition partners and provide technical assistance and support to pass such registries.

Report: Protecting the Rights of Floridians in the Rick Scott Era

The ACLU of Florida has just issued a report entitled, “Protecting the Rights of Floridians in the Rick Scott Era: A Two-Year Report on Combatting Assaults by the Legislature and the Administration of Gov. Rick Scott on Civil Liberties,” which illustrates the work the ACLU and other organizations have undertaken to defend civil rights in Florida over  the last two years.

“In order to defend the rights of Floridians from their own state government, the ACLU of Florida was involved in nine lawsuits challenging Gov. Scott’s policies and legislative attacks on civil liberties[.]”

Among the issues listed in the report were:

  • the right to vote,
  • the right to be free from unreasonable searches,
  • religious freedom and the separation of church and state,
  • women’s rights and reproductive freedom,
  • an independent judiciary, and
  • freedom of speech.

The report was released at the halfway point of Governor Rick Scott’s term and before the new session of the Florida legislature gets under way.

“With the 2012 elections behind us and the 2014 gubernatorial election  already effectively begun,  it appears that the Governor is attempting to moderate his views to make them palatable,” said ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon.

“But no public relations campaign can paper over the picture described in our report,” continued Simon, “that for the last two years, whether it has been the right to vote, freedom from unreasonable searches by government officials, women’s rights, the protection of personal privacy, religious freedom or freedom of speech, the ACLU has had to protect Floridians from a wide-ranging assault on their rights by their own Legislature and Governor.”

Download the report. (PDF)

Petition: End the federal anti-immigrant program in Florida

Baylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

Right now, two sheriff’s offices in Florida are participating in a program that has led to racial profiling and created fear in minority communities. This program goes beyond the infamous Arizona anti-immigrant law, not just involving local law enforcement officers in asking about immigration status, but actually deputizing these officers to perform immigration enforcement functions on behalf of the federal government.  But like the Arizona law, this program is ripe for abuse.

Sign the petition to our Senators to call for an end to the racial profiling program in Florida counties.

The federal program, known as 287(g), deputizes local police in Collier County and Jacksonville as immigration enforcers, with virtually no training, oversight, or accountability. This program not only increases racial profiling and wastes precious law enforcement resources, but also damages the community’s trust in law enforcement and alienates victims and witnesses of crime.

But you can change that. Because the agreements in place in Florida to participate in the program are set to expire in January 2013, we have the opportunity to end our state’s participation once and for all. Now is the time to make Florida a “287(g)-free zone.”

That’s why we need you to join us in asking Senators Rubio and Nelson to end the agreements. Tell our Senators that Floridians want a state that treats all residents with dignity and respect.

Celebrating Forever Families on National Adoption Day

See the video.

Nikki Fisher,
Field Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

Thanksgiving and the year-end holiday season are right around the corner. During this time of year, families gather to eat together, laugh together and generally celebrate being together. In the past two years in Florida, those families have included gay men and lesbians who have adopted children and given them loving homes. But it hasn’t always been that way.

For 33 years, Florida law categorically banned gays and lesbians from becoming adoptive parents. As a result, many children who could have been placed in a loving, permanent home were denied that opportunity, spending years in the foster care system and in many cases, aging out without ever being adopted.

In 2009, the ACLU of Florida, along with the ACLU LGBT Project, represented Martin Gill, a Miami father who was trying to adopt two children who he was already a foster father for. After years of litigation, the ACLU successfully overturned the adoption ban in the fall of 2010.

This Saturday, November 17, is National Adoption Day and thanks to this victory, all adoptive and potential adoptive families in Florida, including those with gay and lesbian parents can celebrate this occasion designed to raise awareness of children in need of a loving adoptive home and the parents who give those children the care and permanency of a family

In honor of National Adoption Day and in celebration of these incredible last two years we have created a video telling the story of Martin’s family and how the adoption process has evolved in Florida over the last two years. The video also features Vanessa and Melanie Aleni, who adopted their son Ethan right after the Gill decision. They are two loving, doting, mothers that have provided their son with the most remarkable gift: a forever home.

Through interviews with people on the front lines in the fight to end the adoption ban, the video recounts the story of how and why Martin and the ACLU challenged the law, describes what the monumental change has meant for other gay men and lesbians who want to provide kids with loving homes, and celebrates the new opportunities for children to find forever families in the wake of the decision.

In the time since we began our campaign, the number of families directly impacted by the court’s decision has continued to grow. As of now, over 200 children have been adopted by lesbian or gay parents.

National Adoption Day is a time to reflect on the importance of family and to celebrate those who helped give a child one. Today I’m reflecting on a time when we were interviewing Martin for the video, and he asked his oldest son, “What does adoption mean to you?” He looked at his dad and said, “forever family.” I’m proud to say that this year, because of the work we’ve done, there are hundreds of kids who will share this and every other holiday with their “forever family.”

A Victory for Core Civil Liberties in the Defeat of Amendments 5, 6 and 8

Howard Simon,
Executive Director, ACLU of Florida 

In this election, we Floridians had to defend our constitution from assault by our own Legislature.

The defeat of Amendments 5, 6 and 8 is  a major victory for the people of Florida over the  legislature which tried to deceive us into voting to surrender  our civil liberties  with misleading constitutional Amendments. The fact that the legislature came up short is a triumph for the constitutional rights of Floridians.

Amendment 5 would have altered  the delicate balance and separation of powers between the legislature and the courts by making the courts subservient to the legislature. The defeat of Amendment 5 is a victory for the independence of the judiciary on which all of our rights depend.

The defeat of Amendment 6 also represents a victory over an attempted overreach by Tallahassee politicians –  overreach into the private medical decisions of Florida women. In voting this amendment down, Floridians demonstrated that we trust Florida women to make private medical decisions rather than let legislators force decisions on them.  We are thankful that the voters refused to amend Florida’s constitutional right of privacy, making sure that everyone remains protected.

The voters also saw through the deceptive and  misleadingly-titled ‘Religious Freedom’ Amendment and preserved historic separation of church and state.  The defeat of Amendment 8’s  means that the Florida Constitution’s no-aid to religious institutions provision will continue to protect us against the dangerous entanglement of government and religion that comes with  taxpayer funding of religion.

The legislature tried to pull the wool over the voters’ eyes, but  the people of Florida demonstrated that we weren’t going to be fooled.

We are grateful for the support of our members, supporters, volunteers and local ACLU chapters across the state who worked hard with us to defend the Constitution from the legislature’s overreach.



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