The for-profit prison company GEO Group has threatened to sue the human rights group Dream Defenders, which is planning a national day of action today to protest the private prison company. GEO Group is Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s single biggest contractor, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to run private immigrant prisons. The Dream Defenders are planning to disrupt GEO Group operations in cities across the United States today, including in Florida, Arizona, California and New York City. For more, we speak with Rachel Gilmer, co-director of the Florida-based Dream Defenders. The organization was recently served a cease-and-desist letter by attorneys representing the for-profit detention company GEO Group. They have launched a campaign website, GEOcages.com.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. The for-profit prison company GEO Group has threatened to sue the human rights group the Dream Defenders, which is planning a national day of action today to protest the private prison company. GEO Group is Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s single biggest contractor, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from ICE to run private immigrant prisons around the country. The Dream Defenders are planning to disrupt GEO Group operations in cities across the United States, including Florida, Arizona, California and New York.
For more, we’re joined by Dream Defenders co-director Rachel Gilmer, the organization recently served a cease-and-desist letter by attorneys representing the GEO Group.
Rachel, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about your action today and then the response of GEO Group, the prison company?
RACHEL GILMER: Great. So we’ve been working with organizations across the country, including Puente in Arizona, Democratic Socialists of America, United We Dream, to organize a national day against GEO Group, one of the country’s largest for-profit prison industries. So, people may have seen pictures of children locked behind cages, of young people wrapped in blankets on a floor, of families being separated. People should know that there are major corporations, like the GEO Group, who are the ones that are actually profiting off of this system. They’ve also been profiting off of separating black families due to mass incarcerations for generations. And so we wanted to bring together a diverse coalition, because we see GEO Group as a very common target: The same people that are locking up black people in America’s prisons are the same people responsible for making money off of deporting immigrants and this immigration crisis with Trump’s tough-on-immigration laws.
And so we’ve organized a national day of action where we’re targeting GEO prisons, we’re targeting GEO detention facilities, and we’re targeting elected officials’ offices who are actually taking money from the very people who profit off of these systems and then going and making policies that lead to building more prisons, that lead to tough-on-immigration crimes. And part of what we’re trying to say today is that, you know, we’ve seen lots of politicians who have gone and visited detention centers, we’ve seen lots of politicians who have spoken out against Trump’s racist vitriol, and part of what we’re saying is it’s not enough to say all of that and then to turn around and take money from the very people profiting off of it. So this action is about drawing a very clear line in the sand and saying that, you know, we need an end to the privatization of our immigrant detention and deportation industry, and we need an end to private prisons, and politicians really need to choose a side.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what this cease-and-desist letter you were served with, that Dream Defenders was served with. And explain what the group Dream Defenders is.
RACHEL GILMER: So, Dream Defenders is a human rights youth organization based in Florida, the same—you know, we’re just down the street, actually, from where GEO is headquartered. And over the last few months, I mean, really since our founding—we were founded seven years ago—we’ve been doing work against GEO Group and against mass incarceration and against immigrant detention.
And coming into the election cycle, we knew that we really wanted to make the fact that—you know, Florida is really ground zero for politicians being in bed with the private prison industry. And so, going into this election cycle, we knew we really wanted to draw a hard line in the sand on that. And so we created a pledge, called the Freedom Pledge, that said politicians should not take any more money from GEO Group, that any money that they’ve previously taken, they should give back to the community by donating to organizations that actually keep us safe, like public schools and community-based organizations, and that, once in office, they should fight for an agenda that takes away money from police and prisons, and actually puts it into food stamps, puts it into healthcare, puts it into education and everyday things that keep us safe.
We’ve been building a lot of momentum against GEO Group over the last few months. We got all of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates to say that they wouldn’t take money from GEO Group. We got the Democratic state party to say that they wouldn’t take money from GEO Group and its lobbyists anymore. And that’s a really, really, really big deal, because, again, Florida Republicans and Democrats take more money from GEO Group than almost any set of politicians across the country. Politicians like Lauren Book, who’s, you know, a Democratic senator in line to potentially be Senate president, her dad is a lobbyist with GEO Group, and she took tens of thousands of dollars from GEO Group in an uncontested race for Senate. Politicians like Rick Scott, Trump, they also take money from GEO Group.
AMY GOODMAN: Rick Scott, the governor of Florida.
RACHEL GILMER: And so, we’ve really been working to—yes, the governor of Florida is taking close to a million dollars. So we’ve been really working to build a movement against all of this. After the Florida Democratic Party passed a resolution saying they wouldn’t take any more money from GEO, the California Democratic Party passed a similar resolution. But they took it one step further and said the millions of dollars that they’ve previously taken, they’re going to donate it to immigrant rights groups. Then, about a month later, the New York state said that they would divest their pensions from GEO Group.
So, GEO is very, very scared of this movement that’s growing. And on Friday, as a result, Dream Defenders received a cease-and-desist letter from GEO Group that basically said that we are making false allegations against them, that actually the state is responsible for the caging of children, for the separation of families, for the jailing of black communities, and that GEO Group is merely following orders. You know, the Nazis said the same thing during the Nuremberg trials, that they weren’t the ones ultimately responsible for the slaughter of millions of Jews, that they were just simply following orders. And GEO’s cease-and-desist letter basically said the same thing.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a video produced by your group, Dream Defenders. This features 8-year-old Yaya the Awesome of the Dream Defenders.
YAYA THE AWESOME: The GEO Group is the largest prison company in the world. They make billions off separating families and putting black, Latino and poor white people in jail. That’s not just wrong, it’s sick. Let me show you how it works. GEO gets money to run prisons from the Florida government. They take that money to hire guys in suits who influence politicians with money. These politicians vote for new prisons or laws that put more people in jail. Then GEO gets people in their prisons, and the cycle starts all over again. Rick Scott, Adam Putnam, Lauren Book, and even Andrew Cuomo all the way in New York, takes money from the GEO. Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Yaya the Awesome of the Dream Defenders, this video. In this video, she talks about Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York. Can you talk more about what New York is doing and the pressure Dream Defenders has brought to make that happen?
RACHEL GILMER: Right. So, as I said, New York state recently passed a law that said that they would divest their pensions from GEO Group and the private prison industry. Here in Florida, our pensions are also invested in the private prison industry. And so it’s really, really exciting to see momentum building that says it’s so wrong that our state is actually invested in private prisons. If we’re invested in private prisons, there’s actually no incentive to decarcerate people.
And so, part of what we’re trying to do with this video, where we worked with Yaya to create, is to really create in plain language what these private prisons are doing. I think one of the scariest things about GEO is they hide behind a very nebulous brand. If you saw GEO Group and their logo, you wouldn’t know what they do. Their logo is a globe. If you go to their website, it’s literally—the picture on the website is a picture of a classroom. I looked at a video on YouTube from their shareholder meeting, and it was three minutes of pictures of the hotel set to Pharrell’s “Happy.” So, GEO is able to do very dirty work in the shadows behind this very nebulous brand.
GEO, as I said, has increased their profits by, you know, a ton since Trump got into office, and actually so much so that they’re building a brand-new world headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida. We went and canvassed the neighborhood to see how people felt about it. One, people didn’t know who GEO was. And when they did find out who GEO was, they were against it. One of our organizers, Rodnika, talked to someone who said, “Oh, my cousin actually works at GEO Group, and I didn’t even know what they did. I thought they were an environmental organization.”
So, one of the things we’re trying to do with this video, one of the things we’re trying to do with organizers in California, in New York and all across the country, is really shed light on this very dangerous behavior of people actually profiting off of human suffering. Corporations like the NRA and GEO Group don’t believe in a world where people are free. They don’t believe in a world without cages. They don’t believe in a world where mothers have enough to feed their family or mothers aren’t afraid that they’re going to lose their child to a badge or a bullet. And so, GEO Group has no incentive to fight for that world with us, because literally their business imperative is to keep prisons, to continue to deport immigrants.
And so, I think GEO, part of this cease-and-desist letter is how threatened they feel about this new vision that organizers are fighting for all around the world that says we don’t need cages; people fleeing violence in their countries, they should be welcomed in this country. And I think GEO is very, very threatened by that. And the cease-and-desist is a true testament to how threatened they are.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to change any of your practices? Are you going to take any of your literature offline, Rachel, as a result of the cease-and-desist letter?
RACHEL GILMER: We aren’t. We spoke to lawyers, and they said over and over and over again that truth is our defense. You can literally Google search GEO, and all of the things that we’ve talked about them doing—separating families, locking up children, jailing black and poor communities—you can find tons of scholarly articles, you can find tons of media hits, you can find firsthand accounts of detainees in their prisons and detention centers, saying that they do all of those things. So we’re not backing down from the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: GEO Group said in its cease-and-desist letter that Dream Defenders’ defamatory statements include, quote, “Blatantly false allegations that GEO asserts improper influence over the United States political system, and an incorrect publication of a list of individuals to whom GEO supposedly made political contributions.” GEO also said they have “at all times lawfully exercised its right to participate in the political process.” So, if you could respond to what they’re saying? They’re saying it’s the government that’s involved with caging children, separating families; they’re just carrying out what the government—the government’s dictates.
RACHEL GILMER: One, on the improper influence, I mean, GEO, along with the private prison industry as a whole, pours millions and millions and millions of dollars into our political system, through both lobbying and direct contributions to candidates. Those candidates, once elected, are then responsible for advancing policies around immigration and around mass incarceration. One of the things we saw with Trump, very specifically, is that the day after he was elected, all of the stocks dropped, except for the private prison industry and the war companies. So it was actually very, very much a testament of what was to come.
GEO is actually—a lawsuit has been filed against them for donations they made directly to Trump. Once he was elected, they donated $250,000 to his inaugural committee. And GEO ended up moving its annual meeting to Mar-a-Lago resort. Some of those activities may be legal because of Citizens United and this idea that corporations can pour millions and millions of dollars into our political system. But, to me, it’s certainly not proper.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what you’re doing in the different states today.
RACHEL GILMER: So, as I said, we are targeting both GEO detention centers, GEO prisons and elected officials’ offices who take money from GEO Group. Everybody’s hands are dirty in that situation. And part of the narrative we’re trying to tell is that the same people that are profiting off of the detention of immigrants are the same people that are profiting off of locking up black people and poor people and separating families and communities for generations. And so we really see a common enemy in GEO, and we really are forcing politicians to choose a side, that, again, you can’t say that you’re against Trump’s racist rhetoric while simultaneously taking money from the folks who profit off of it. So it’s really about drawing a line in the sand and saying, “If you’re taking money from GEO Group, your hands are dirty in child separation, your hands are dirty in the phenomenon of mass incarceration, and that you really, really do need to choose a side.”
AMY GOODMAN: Just finally, in July, Wall Street Journal reported, so far this year, GEO’s shares are up 14 percent. According to a piece out by The Week August 6, “About 75 percent of all immigrants detained by ICE are … in private prisons. Just two companies dominate the industry: CoreCivic”—that’s CCA of the past—”has 42 percent of the market and GEO Group 37 percent. GEO Group donated heavily to President Trump’s campaign, and both GEO and CoreCivic contributed $250,000 to his inauguration committee.” Rachel?
RACHEL GILMER: Yeah, I mean, it is absolutely disgusting that people are invested and are betting on a future where more and more immigrants will be detained, where more and more families will be separated, where more and more people will be deported back to countries where they’re escaping human rights abuses. So it’s really, really scary that we have folks who have a hold on our political system who are actually directly invested in that type of future.
Dream Defenders is invested in a totally different type of future. This past year, we released a political agenda called the Freedom Papers, that said, you know, there’s actually enough for all of us, no one should be in poverty, no one should be behind a cage, that there’s much more productive and humane ways for our society to take care of its people, but it’s all about priorities. The issue is that our politicians are in bed with groups like the NRA, they’re in bed with groups like the GEO Group, they’re in bed with groups like the CoreCivic. So we really need folks to join our movement and to really say that enough is enough.
We’re really excited that, just a couple of days ago, a group of activists have actually been occupying CoreCivic’s headquarters. So it’s really, really a sign that this movement is growing and that folks are starting to wake up to the for-profit motives that are really what’s driving—a big part of what’s driving this system.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you also taking on CoreCivic? It’s even larger than GEO Group.
RACHEL GILMER: Yeah, we’re taking on all of the private prison corporations and all the corporations in general that are invested in little girls like Yaya not being able to live out their futures, not being able to have a future, not being able to live out their dreams. We call these folks the dream killers. And they’re folks like the NRA. They’re folks like GEO Group. They’re folks like CoreCivic.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, where do you head now, Rachel?
RACHEL GILMER: I’m about to go to Boca Raton, where we are doing an unwelcome party for the GEO Group, who, as I said, is building a brand-new headquarters building right around the corner from where we are now. So, we’ve been gathering neighbors who have been saying, again, “We didn’t even know who GEO Group is. And now that we do, we don’t want them down the street from our children, where they go to school. We don’t want them down the street from where we go to the gym every day. We don’t want them down the street from where our kids are playing outside.” So we’re going to throw them a giant unwelcome party and tell them that, you know, we’re trying to evict them from the neighborhood.
AMY GOODMAN: Rachel Gilmer, we want to thank you for being with us, co-director of the Florida-based Dream Defenders, the organization recently served with a cease-and-desist letter by attorneys representing the for-profit detention company GEO Group. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.