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- Photo by Taylor Johnson
- Katherine Katcher (left) of Root & Rebound and Carmen Garcia, a former inmate, strongly question GEO Care's reentry services.
Many nonprofits and government agencies have stepped up. But for-profit corporations like GEO Group have also expanded their footprint.
"Corporatizing the process of reentry is the last thing we should be doing as a society. All it does is further systemic issues," said Katcher, of CDCR's contract with GEO Group. "We get lip service from our legislature that de-incarceration is happening, and then this kind of decision is made, and it's horrifying."
In 2011, following federal court orders to reduce overcrowding in California's prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Public Safety Realignment Bill, or Assembly Bill 109, now referred to simply as "realignment."
Realignment transferred responsibility for nonviolent offenders from the state to the county level in an effort to slash the state's prison population. Then in 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47, reducing several low-level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, such as petty theft and possession of a controlled substance. As a result of such reforms, the state's prison population has declined significantly.
According to a report last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, realignment cut the state's prison population by about 27,400 people in its first year. After the passage of Prop 47 and other criminal justice reforms, California's prison population plummeted by a total of 24 percent — 42,300 people — from its peak in 2006.
Krissi Khokhobashvili, spokesperson for the CDCR, said realignment and other reforms required a wide range of different reentry needs. "Our population has changed, and we have seen a higher need in reentry services, and that's why we've seen an increase in the number and types of transitional housing and reentry facilities that we've opened," said Khokhobashvili. "In recent years, there's been more of a focus on rehabilitation and an increase on the focus on reentry so that rehab doesn't just stop when you're done with prison."
GEO Group has quickly pounced on this shift. In addition to its GEO Corrections division, the corporation established a new brand in 2012 called GEO Care. Through acquisitions of smaller companies and continued growth, this division includes a variety of community correction services, including residential youth treatment, electronic monitoring, re-entry facilities, and day reporting centers, such as the one in Richmond.
In GEO Group's 2016 annual report to shareholders, the corporation announced that it was doubling its annual commitment to $10 million to expand the delivery of such post-release support services beginning in 2017. GEO Group CEO George Zoley asserted at the time that "these industry-leading efforts underscore our continued belief that, as a company, we are at our best when helping those in our care re-enter society."
But the American Friends Service Committee, a faith-based social justice organization that works on a variety of human-rights issues, including prisoner advocacy, refers to this growing trend as the "Treatment Industrial Complex."
The group argues that decarceration also gives corporations the opportunity to continue profiting from individuals they've detained after they're released. Dalit Baum, the committee's director of economic activism, said that the very nature of how GEO Group generates profits should be a red flag.
"The for-profit model of these companies stands in contra[st] to social goals," she said. "Because these companies are paid per diem, per person, they have a motivation to do what we call 'net widening' — to get as many people under the boot of the system in the harshest form of control and surveillance, for the longest time."
Caroline Isaacs, program director of the group's Tucson, Ariz. office and a prison-privatization expert, argued that GEO Group's approach "is more marketing than substance" on the part of the private industry. "They're selling whatever they think the state is buying," she said.
Monica Hook, vice president of strategic marketing for GEO Care, responded that the company's treatment programs are "not profit-motivated," and instead are tailored for individuals based on assessment tests. "We are held accountable by the agencies that we work with."
Corporate records show that, in 2016, Florida-based GEO Group reported $2.18 billion in total revenue, with nearly half of it coming from its government contracts. Nearly one-fifth of this came from the GEO Care division, which is smaller by comparison, but continues to expand.
For years, GEO Group has also come under criticism by criminal justice and human rights advocates who say the company has compromised the quality of care and failed to properly train staff in order to achieve cost-reductions, resulting in dismal and dangerous conditions at GEO's detention facilities.
A group of immigrants detained at the ICE facility in Aurora, Colorado, sued the corporation for allegedly violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2014. The lawsuit alleges that GEO Group coerced detainees to work for free, under the threat of being thrown into solitary confinement. On Feb. 9, a federal appeals court cleared the way for a group of nine detainees to move forward with a class-action suit — representing over 60,000 people — against GEO.
In 2017, three people died at Adelanto Detention Facility, one of GEO Group's ICE detention centers in California. As reported by Mother Jones, one immigrant died from internal bleeding, another committed suicide by hanging, and another collapsed while playing soccer at the facility.