FAU and GEO Group maintain business relationship

FAU maintains partnership with private prison company years after stadium controversy.


Dakota Chelsea

Picture of the FAU Stadium.

Melanie Gomez, Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: This article was updated for accuracy. Cassandra Atkin-Plunk, Ph.D. was not contacted for comment prior to publishing.

Nearly a decade ago, GEO Group and FAU were at the center of a controversy that made national headlines, all revolving around the university’s stadium.

GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the United States, is headquartered in
Boca Raton and just a few minutes from FAU. The founder, CEO until July 2021, and current executive chairman George Zoley is an FAU alum and a former member of the university’s Board of Trustees. He made large donations to Marco Rubio’s 2016 senatorial campaign, according to OpenSecrets, an organization dedicated to tracking donations in political campaigns. Later, in 2018, Rubio voted against the First Step Act, a bill focused on federal prison reform and improving conditions for rehabilitation, which then-president Donald Trump would later sign into law. Zoley and GEO Group could not be reached for comment.

For years, student activists have accused GEO Group of neglect and abuse of prisoners, including denying medical care and excessive usage of solitary confinement in their facilities.

Janene Wallace was a prisoner at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, Pa., who committed suicide after spending 50 days in solitary confinement in 2015, according to WHYY.

Wallace’s family filed a $7 million lawsuit against the prison, which is a GEO Group-owned facility as of 2021. Family attorney David Inscho claims the guard on duty called Wallace a mentally ill woman, verbally abused her and called her obscenities, and convinced her to commit suicide. The lawsuit was settled in 2017, leaving GEO Group to pay out the $7 million to the Wallace family.

In July, Boca News Now reported that prisoner Stefan Johnson, imprisoned in Florida at the South Bay Correctional Facility, another GEO Group facility, is suing the company on the basis of being denied dental care.

Johnson claims he has been denied dental care despite having dental pain for several years and was never seen at the dental facility after waiting for hours on multiple occasions. GEO Group has faced multiple cases and lawsuits over the years similar to those aforementioned, relating to the concerns of opposing students regarding the stadium deal back in 2013.

Picture of the FAU Stadium. (Eston Parker III)

A History of the FAU Stadium Controversy

The university’s brand new football stadium finally opened in 2011 after years of construction. Behind the scenes, the university had been working to secure naming rights for the stadium. On Feb. 19, 2013, FAU, under the tenure of then-president Mary Jane Saunders, announced the $6 million deal with GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the United States, headquartered in Boca Raton and just a few minutes drive from FAU.

Immediately, there was student backlash regarding the deal with multiple student organizations banding together to stop the deal from going further, dubbing themselves the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition.

Shortly afterward, the deal began to make national headlines because the unusualness of the deal and the controversies regarding the human rights abuse allegations against GEO Group.

As the spring semester of 2013 progressed, the students became more vocal on the matter. On March 1, President Saunders held a Q&A with roughly 250 attendees expressing their concerns on the deal. However, she confirmed that the stadium deal with GEO Group would go through no matter what.

The controversy with Saunders did not end there. On the 22nd of that month, Saunders allegedly hit student protestor Britni Hiatt with the rearview mirror of her car by accident while on the Jupiter campus for a faculty event.

On that same day, the FAU Faculty Senate, a governing body of FAU’s tenured professors that deals with concerns on matters of general university educational policy such as curriculum, admissions, and academic calendar met. They voted against the GEO Group deal by a vote of 25-9.

Despite the large controversy, there was still great dedication to maintaining the deal with GEO Group. Aside from Saunders, the leaders of student government at the time signed a letter in support of the deal which was later distributed to the Boca Raton House of Representatives on March 29.

On April 1, protestors used April Fools Day as a celebration to pretend that GEO Group Stadium deal was shut down as a joke. It was also the same day the first of 12 $500,000 payments from the GEO Group donation was planned to be paid out. What began as a joke became serious when that day at 6:30 p.m., FAU announced that they decided to cancel the deal, putting an end to the GEO Group Stadium era of controversy.

Saunders would resign from the position of university president over a month later on May 15. However, she continues to teach as a tenured biology professor at the university. Saunders did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

FAU and GEO Group: The Relationship Years Later

Since the finale of the stadium controversy, there was very little news coverage and eventually, this era of FAU history had faded to obscurity. The students who were at FAU during this time graduated and a new generation has arrived altogether to seemingly an environment that has gotten rid of all ties with GEO Group. However, GEO Group is still at FAU, just not as publicly.

The company has made a few appearances here and there since the stadium controversy, indicating that the partnership between the university and the corporation is still intact.

Photo by Melissa Landolfa.

Cheryl Wilke is a chair member at the FAU Foundation, the university’s foundation dedicated to connecting private donors and providing scholarships to students. Wilke is a current employee at GEO Group and has been an appointed chairwoman since 2019. The Alumni Association is an organization that connects alumni together for new opportunities and comes with a membership fee that aids in covering financial aid for students. The organization had Chris Ferreira appointed as a director just recently in April of 2021. He is also an employee of GEO Group as the corporate relations manager of the company.

GEO Group is still a sponsor of FAU’s College of Business’s annual Business Plan Competition. The corporation also has made a few appearances at career fairs throughout the years after the stadium controversy, primarily seeking to recruit students at the College of Social Work and Criminal Justice and the College of Business.

GEO Group is also funding research. They are listed as one of the research sponsors of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice in 2018. Two recent studies conducted by criminal justice professor Cassandra Atkin-Plunk were funded by GEO Group. One was funded from Oct. 1, 2017, through May 1, 2018. The other ran from Jan. 2, 2019, through May 11, 2019, totaling an amount of around $29,173 dollars.

Although there has not been as much publicity over the GEO Group and FAU situation as in the early 2010s, the two have kept a close business relationship in the time following the failed stadium deal. This partnership has had its fair share of criticism and controversy over the years.

Editor’s Note: This story is a part of our October/November issue titled “On Campus and Awaiting Trial,” which you can pick up on campus or read online here.

Melanie Gomez is a contributing writer for the University Press. For more information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected].