How a Prison Company’s Bid for Acceptance Turned into a PR Disaster

A Google search for “PR disaster” today returned news that private prison company GEO Group has withdrawn its offer for the naming rights of Florida Atlantic University’s new football stadium. 

It’s an exciting resolution for the Ella Baker Center's online petition calling on the university to reverse the deal. 

It’s also a reminder that citizens can use “virtual” online organizing and action to push issues like abuse in private prisons out in the open – great news at a time when holding corporations and public institutions accountable can feel nearly impossible. 

How Online Action Helped Stop GEO Group

In February, Florida Atlantic University (FAU) – a public institution – announced that private prison company GEO Group would be awarded the naming rights to FAU’s new football stadium in exchange for a $6 million gift to the school.

Since the deal was announced, FAU students have staged sit-ins and other protests, and the faculty Senate overwhelmingly voted to oppose the deal. 

Unfortunately, community objections seem to count for less than the interests of corporations and the public institutions desperate for funding.

FAU President Mary Jane Saunders dismissed the issue of GEO’s name on the stadium as a concern for only 20 FAU students, while the remaining 29,980 went about their “normal business.”

That’s why it was crucial that 70,000 people nationwide called for reversal of the deal via online petitions.  

The Ella Baker Center circulated a petition to our network in solidarity with a petition issued by DreamActivist.org.  Allies like the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America spread the word about the various petitions, generating signatures and media attention in the process. 

Exposing the Truth About Private Prisons

In his letter to FAU calling off the deal, GEO Chairman George Zoley, a FAU alum, said it had, "evolved into an ongoing distraction to both our organizations."

GEO Group’s goal in purchasing the naming rights of the stadium was to try to make the private prison “industry” seem like any other business. But it’s not. It’s a business that depends on the incarceration of people, inherently sacrificing their well being to increase profits for its shareholders.

Like any other corporation, though, it is concerned with managing its public image.  And that gives people and communities some leverage.

By standing against GEO Group, everyone who signed and shared a petition prevented private prisons from taking a step toward cultural acceptance.

Instead, what the people of Florida and around the country heard about were the abuses that so often take place at GEO Group facilities.  

Even President Saunders, who called GEO a “wonderful company” in her original announcement of the deal, conceded to student activists that she hadn’t known much about the company’s record of horrifying abuse before signing. 

Now, thanks to a combination of local action and national solidarity and online action, that’s what thousands of people in Florida and nationwide will remember the next time they hear about private prisons in the news, in the legislature, or on a ballot.

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