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GEO Group’s Gulags Grasping for Green Approval

GEO Group’s Gulags Grasping for Green Approval

by Panagioti Tsolkas

All the environmentally-conscious “green” certifications in the world can’t cover up the steady flow of atrocities associated with for-profit prisons, but that’s not going to stop them from trying.

In March 2015, the GEO Group – the nation’s second-largest private prison company – was called out by the “Greenwashing the Gulags” social media campaign for announcing that they had taken advantage of a publicly-funded program to promote water conservation by installing a native landscape plan at the Desert View Modified Community Correctional Facility.

GEO operates the prison in drought-stricken Adelanto, California, and the company received $4,207 to remove over 8,400 square feet of grass at the entrance of the facility. The labor for the project was provided by prisoners, of course, and the grass was replaced with gravel, a few native plants and well-arranged rocks. Some of the rocks were painted blue to spell out “GEO.”

Despite the new landscaping, GEO Group still draws massive quantities of water each day to operate the 700-bed facility. While GEO did not return calls from Prison Legal News inquiring about the facility’s water use, estimates indicate it uses over 140,000 gallons a day. That does not include the nearby 1,300-bed Adelanto Detention Facility, also run by the company, which houses immigrant detainees.

According to a recent Environmental Impact Statement for a federal prison being built in Kentucky, the average amount of water used by each prisoner is over 200 gallons per day – for drinking, showers, laundry, toilet flushing, food preparation, etc. That’s more than double the average amount used by someone outside of prison according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which estimated water use by the general population at 80-100 gallons a day.

GEO Group’s water consumption in parched southern California is set to increase significantly, as the Adelanto Detention Facility expects to complete a 640-bed expansion by July 2015. That will bring the facility to a total population of 1,940 immigrant detainees who will use a correspondingly greater amount of water.

GEO Group didn’t list those statistics under the “Green Initiatives” and “Sustainability Tips” sections of its website.

According to the “Going Green” page on the company’s site, for several years GEO “has been tracking and analyzing its facilities’ utility efficiencies on a monthly basis.” You’ll likely never be able to learn the results of that analysis, though, because as a private firm GEO Group is exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act and many state public records statutes that require government agencies to disclose what they are doing.

“Greenwashing” is when a company or organization spends more on advertising, marketing and public relations to promote the perception they are environmentally conscious than they spend on implementing practices and policies that actually are environmentally conscious. The most egregious aspect of GEO’s greenwashing is the company’s incessant bragging about its LEED certifications.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is an environmental stamp of approval based on meeting “factors including but not limited to the sustainability of the site, the efficient use of water, energy, material and other resources, the quality of indoor air and overall environment, and the use of innovative and environmentally friendly technologies and strategies,” according to GEO (emphasis added).

Never mind that private prisons are consistently under-staffed with high staff turnover rates. For example, New Mexico found for-profit facilities understaffed by 10% or more. Or that privately-operated facilities pay lower wages – a report from Texas found “private prison guards were paid 28% to 37% less than state prison guards.” Or that they are bastions of well-documented corruption and abuse, and tend to have higher levels of violence. At least they’re LEED certified.

In September 2011, Blackwater River Correctional Facility (BRCF), located in Milton, Florida, became GEO’s first prison to receive a LEED Gold Certification, but it didn’t come easy.

Prison Legal News published an extensive report on the scandal that led to the construction of BRCF, which opened at a time when there was excess bed space in Florida’s prison system and the facility was not needed – which doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly. [See: PLN, March 2011, p.1].

The BRCF deal sparked a federal investigation into potentially illicit conduct in connection with former Florida House of Representatives Speaker Ray Sansom, who resigned in February 2010 amid an unrelated state criminal and ethics investigation.

But certainly not all of GEO’s LEED certified prisons could be scandal-ridden, could they? Consider the following examples:

There’s the Adelanto Detention Facility in drought-stricken California, mentioned earlier, which consumes a significant amount of water yet has a LEED Silver Certification. Salvadoran immigrant Raul Ernesto Morales Ramos, 44, died on April 6, 2015, reportedly after staff at the GEO facility denied him medical care. Detainees have reportedly been denied medical treatment previously at Adelanto, and a medical malpractice suit is pending against GEO related to a 2012 death.

Then there’s the Broward Transitional Center in Florida, located next to an animal shelter and across the street from a massive landfill, known for hunger strikes and two young immigrant activists who infiltrated the facility to report substandard medical care and other problems. [See: PLN, March 2015, p.34]. According to GEO, the facility is LEED certified.

The GEO-operated Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado has LEED Silver Certification, the company says, but the American Friends Service Committee, which has protested and held vigils outside the facility, is more concerned about the immigrant detainees held there than how environmentally friendly it is.

Plus there’s the New Castle Correctional Facility in Indiana, where you might not even be able to read this article thanks to GEO Group, which has banned publications such as Prison Legal News at the LEED-certified prison. In 2014, PLN filed suit over the censorship of its publications at New Castle.

The Karnes County Civil Detention Center in Texas, which holds immigrant families and children, is another GEO-run facility that’s LEED certified. It has also faced hunger strikes and allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by female detainees.

GEO indicated that, beyond being green, the Karnes facility was going to be more humane than other immigrant detention centers. Apparently, however, the quality of the “overall environment” part of LEED certification doesn’t include respect for basic civil liberties.

Sarwat Husain, president of the San Antonio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, referring to GEO’s Karnes facility, said, “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and smells like a duck, it’s a duck,” noting, “it’s just a glorified prison.” The fact that the facility is LEED certified does nothing to change that.

According to Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, “It really begs the question of why they spent so much money constructing a facility like this when we know that there are alternatives, and less expensive ones?”

One could also add there are more environmentally-friendly alternatives – for example, a drastic reduction in the nation’s prison and immigrant detainee populations would negate the need for many existing detention facilities, whether they are considered green or not, which would have a much more positive environmental impact.


Panagioti Tsolkas is the Special Projects Director for the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization. The original version of this article was published by the Earth First! Newswire (; it is reprinted with permission.


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