What was billed as a dialogue on a hotly contested $6 million donation by the private prison company GEO Group to Florida Atlantic University turned out Friday to be two sides talking by each other, with little or no meeting of the minds.
"It's a done deal," FAU President Mary Jane Saunders told a crowd of 300, members of which were on both sides of the issue. In exchange for payments of $500,000 for the next 12 years, the school's football stadium, home of the FAU Owls, will be named for GEO, a multinational prison management company based in Boca Raton. Saunders called the gift a philanthropic act that would greatly benefit the school.
Those opposed are calling the building Owlcatraz.
Student Arelly Baugh, who identified herself as a Mexican-American, lamented the deal. After expressing her love for the school, especially its reputation for diversity, she decried the agreement with GEO, which has been held responsible in civil judgments for mistreatment of prisoners at some of its facilities. GEO runs prisons, but also immigrant detention centers that hold many Mexicans.
"My name is going to be tarnished with this," Baugh said, her voice quavering.
The hourlong exchange in the recruiting center at the $70 million football stadium was, in general, an argument between economic pragmatism and political idealism. The students wanted to speak about human rights and Saunders wanted to talk about school finances.
Those who opposed the deal asked heated and sometimes angry questions about the agreement, which was approved by the board of trustees Feb. 19. Saunders, flanked by numerous university officials, including board Chairman Anthony Barbar, replied with tempered answers that were barely audible at times.
Saunders said the money would go for mortgage payments on the stadium and most of what was left over would be used for athletic scholarships. She repeatedly defended George Zoley, the chairman of GEO, who is also an FAU alumnus and a former chairman of the FAU board.
"We have a neighbor and partner who also loves FAU and is a part of FAU," Saunders said. "He approached us about a gift. He wanted to be part of this university
and its wonderful athletic
The students opposed to the deal repeatedly brought up incidents of substandard treatment of prisoners at GEO facilities
"I think a company like this is highly regulated," Saunders responded. "There are responsible entities who are looking into the care in these facilities. I don't think that in America today we are ever going to have a big complex organization without problems, but the problems should be resolved through the justice system. I have been assured the company runs very good facilities."
Saunders said GEO's name had been "besmirched" because it had inherited badly run facilities from other companies.
One accusation that has been made against GEO was its running of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional facility in Mississippi. The company has repeatedly claimed it was not responsible for poor conditions at the facility, which one federal judge referred to as "a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions." The company says that accusation was leveled just three months after GEO took it over, too soon to fix all the problems.
But the judge's criticism was leveled 18 months after GEO assumed control of the facility and the judge specifically singled out GEO for criticism. GEO no longer has contracts with the state of Mississippi.
The government of Australia also broke a contract with GEO after the company was accused of abusive treatment of immigrant children. And numerous other incidents have been documented at GEO facilities in the United States, including deaths of inmates that were attributed to insufficient medical attention, sexual assaults and beatings by guards, and suicides that were attributed to institutional neglect. GEO has been hit with judgments in those cases totaling tens of millions of dollars.
On Friday, student Zandra Kalina addressed those issues.
"President Saunders, why has GEO been banned from Mississippi and Australia?" she asked.
"I don't have any direct knowledge of that," Saunders replied.
Saunders said if students wanted to do something about conditions in private prisons, they could study disciplines such as social work, nursing or medicine and work in prisons. "Work from within," she said.
She also said the entire concept of private prisons should become a topic of study.
"This is an opportunity to take something that was privatized by the federal government and have a discussion about that," Saunders said. "Is this the way we want America to run in the future?"
But the critics of the deal were unrelenting. One student said FAU had become the butt of jokes on television -- including the satirical Colbert Report. Another student was incensed.
"Over the next 12 years, every time this company continues its cruel practices, FAU will have a black eye," she said, speaking to Saunders and the other university officials. "I ask you therefore to tell GEO you cannot put a price on human rights, nor can they buy reputation or integrity in this manner. If you have not found another sponsor, then you guys get a failing grade."
At the end the day, more than one critic of the deal was unhappy .
"What we got today was lip service," said student Britini Hiatt. "I think it was very strategic of (Saunders) planning this meeting the day before spring break, knowing the campus will be empty next week. I also think waiting a few days to have the meeting gave her a chance to form standard answers. In the end, what she said is 'this is non-negotiable.'"
Another critic of the deal said the opponents weren't giving up. Out of a total student body of about 30,000, about 150 student opponents of the deal had shown up. But Anole Halper said she wasn't discouraged because the cause is only days old.
"We're committed to this and we aren't going to stop until Owlcatraz stops," she said.