Florida Atlantic University President Mary Jane Saunders has agreed to conduct a public meeting on campus to discuss the school's recent decision to accept a $6 million donation from the private prison corporation GEO Group of Boca Raton, which pledged the money in exchange for naming rights on the school's football stadium.
The announcement came Monday after 40 students conducted a two-hour sit-in at Saunders' office, demanding that the university rescind the agreement. After negotiations, Saunders emerged from her office for a brief meeting with the protesters, who have accused the GEO Group of human rights violations at its facilities, some of which are in Florida.
She agreed to a one-hour meeting with students and any other interested parties Friday at noon.
Last week, after the agreement was approved by the board of trustees, Saunders called GEO "a wonderful company" and said "we are very proud to partner with them."
Monday she was less effusive but also defended GEO.
"I don't know everything about this company," Saunders conceded but she also indicated that she thought some of the accusations against the firm may be untrue.
Earlier, about 100 people attended a demonstration at a different spot on campus. Julie Ebenstein, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, read a statement that accused GEO of having "a well-publicized record of abuse and neglect."
Ebenstein quoted from an order of U.S. Judge Carlton Reeves, who described one GEO-run facility for minors and older teenage prisoners, Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Mississippi, as "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 findings also cited "brazen staff sexual misconduct and brutal youth-on-youth rapes."
Reeves said GEO shared in the blame for the conditions with the Mississippi Department of Corrections and the facility's medical services provider, Health Assurances LLC.
According to Ebenstein, the U.S. Department of Justice had previously condemned conditions at the facility. She said eventually many prisoners were transferred out of the facility and GEO was told to stop putting minors in solitary confinement.
GEO Vice President Pablo E. Paez addressed those accusations in an email to The Palm Beach Post, saying his company had only just taken over the facility in August 2010, three months before the Department of Justice had condemned the conditions there.
"The findings related to problems that preceded GEO's involvement at the facility, when it was operated by different private operator," Paez said.
But the findings and order signed by Reeves were dated March 26, 2012, 18 months after GEO had become involved in running the facility. In his order Reeves said his findings were based on a review of the facility concluded just days before. The findings also say specifically that after GEO acquired and merged with the company that had previously run the facility, Cornell, "key personnel, policies and training ... did not change substantially."
Paez responded that the Walnut Grove facility had been given a 100 percent grade by an industry trade group, the American Correctional Association, right around the time that Reeves condemned the conditions there. He did not address why Reeves and the ACA had such radically different appraisals of the facility. But he confirmed that GEO no longer has any contracts with the state of Mississippi.
Mississippi isn't the only former GEO client. Australia ended a contract with GEO after that country ruled that GEO had violated the rights of immigrant minors.
In South Florida, GEO operates the South Bay Correctional Facility and the Broward Transition Center, a 700-bed facility that houses immigration detainees who have no criminal charges against them, only immigration offenses. South Florida immigrant advocates have accused GEO of shoddy medical care at the transitional center and of detaining individuals longer than necessary in order to boost profits.
"Let me be absolutely clear," Paez said in his email, "we have absolutely nothing to do with who is detained or how their cases are adjudicated. Those are policy decisions which are made by the federal government. Other critics have advanced the notion that GEO has lobbied to influence and somehow toughen immigration policy, which is simply inaccurate and based purely on speculation."
He also praised GEO's record of providing educational and rehabilitation programs.
The chairman of GEO is George Zoley, an FAU alumnus, and Paez spoke of GEO's connections to the school.
"Our company and our foundation have had a long-standing relationship with Florida Atlantic University and have supported the university's scholarship, educational, and athletic priorities for well over a decade," Paez wrote, "and we employ FAU alumni and current students throughout South Florida."
At the protest on campus Monday, students decried those connections, especially GEO's buying the naming rights to the stadium. The agreement calls for GEO to give the school $500,000 per year for 12 years.
"The board of trustees should have done due diligence on GEO before they signed that agreement," said student protest leader Gonzalo Vizcardo. "That is blood money the school is taking. The agreement should be rescinded and president Saunders should be fired. What she said about GEO being a wonderful company was outrageous."
Not everyone was calling for Saunders' head. Martha Brown, a graduate student in education, said her problem was with GEO, not Saunders.
"Prisons are full of under-educated people," she said. "It is where our society locks up the poor, the minorities, the uneducated. Taking this money from GEO is reprehensible. It sends the message that money overrides all moral and ethical considerations. I think the president should return the money and find a new sponsor."
Brown said cuts in higher education spending by the GOP-controlled Legislature created the conditions that make schools desperate for funding.
Philosophy professor Simon Glynn said he had not investigated GEO Group but that the accusations against the company worried him. The fact that Zoley is an FAU alumnus also worried him.
"We don't seem to be doing our jobs adequately because it appears we may be graduating people from the university who are ethically challenged," Glynn said. "I had rather hoped that the university would come down on the side of civilization."