A family outside the GEO Group-run Northwest Detention Center in Washington State. Photo by Seattle Globalist/Flickr
Gary, Indiana's city council just said no to a zoning variance for a privately run immigrant detention center. It was the right thing to do.
Earlier this month, the council voted 9-0 to deny a subsidiary of Florida-based Geo Group a variance to build an 800-bed immigrant processing facility on land across from the Gary/Chicago International Airport. A company spokesman said its $80 million investment would generate $1 million in new tax revenue as well as create jobs in construction and in the prison.
Gary, with an unemployment rate above 10 percent and poverty rate above 20 percent, could use the economic boost. But consider the perversity of letting this once-iconic steel town be delivered from a financial precipice by a prison for people fleeing their home countries to live an American dream—from world builder to world warden.
As for the construction jobs, Gary has been down this path before, including with the recent expansion of the airport’s runway. The $175 million project was meant to help the airport market itself as convenient alternative to O’Hare and Midway for passenger and cargo services. But it created few jobs for Gary residents, says the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organization, which also led the opposition to the detention facility.
Racial politics has played a significant part in Gary’s downfall. Racial justice ought to play a role in building it back up. A detention center is not the right project, economically or morally.
Last year, a U.S. district court judge in Denver denied Geo Group’s bid to dismiss a class action suit alleging that it violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Among various abuses, the company was accused of forcing unpaid detainees to clean prison spaces under threat of solitary confinement.
Brandt Milstein, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said “private companies that are in the business of incarcerating immigrants for profit should not be allowed to pad their profit margins by forcing the detainees to work for nothing, or next to nothing.”
Three years ago, Geo Group pulled out its contract with Mississippi after it settled a lawsuit concerning its operation of a youth correctional facility. A federal judge said the company had “allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.”
Geo Group is also under fire for how it treats its own employees. In March, a federal appeals court reinstated a class sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed against the company by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The suit alleged that Geo Group “discriminated against female prison employees by subjecting them to physical and verbal harassment and retaliation.”
In 2013, the company settled another EEOC lawsuit for $140,000 in damages to two women.
Black people making low-wages by keeping an eye on brown people, with the profits going to a problematic multinational corporation—that’s not the kind of investment communities like Gary need.
Fred McKissack Jr. is a writer, editor and longtime contributor to the Progressive Media Project. He currently resides in Fort Wayne, Indiana.