The GEO Group, a massive for-profit private prison and immigration detention company, has been at the center of much of the debate about the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrant families. The company was a major supporter of Donald Trump’s campaign and inauguration fund. After he took office, his administration ramped up use of private prisons as well as introduced a radical crackdown on immigration — two policies that funneled money to the company in the form of new contracts.
The company has been a defendant in dozens of federal lawsuits brought in the past year and a half (many of which are on-going), alleging it mistreats its detainees, violates their constitutional rights, fails to ensure their safety, and forces involuntary servitude.
A ThinkProgress review of federal court records in the PACER database found that at least 22 different law firms have represented The GEO Group since January 2017. These included lawyers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. Two of those firms even advertised on their website that The GEO Group is one of their major clients — alongside prominent companies like CNA, FedEx, Pilot Travel Centers, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, and Zurich Insurance Group — until ThinkProgress asked about it. Those firms have since taken down their client pages.
Serious allegations against The GEO Group
In 2016, the Justice Department under the Obama administration announced it planned to stop the use of private prison companies at federal facilities after a U.S. Inspector General report found more safety and security incidents occurred at privately run facilities than at ones operated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, according to the Washington Post. Then last year, the Trump administration reversed the policy: Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the DOJ order, opening the door to for-profit prison companies once again running federal facilities.
Conditions at privately run immigration detention centers — often operated by the same companies, like The GEO Group, that run federal prisons — can be especially bad. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, which The GEO Group currently operates, has also allegedly provided inadequate care for the more than 1,000 women and children that live there. An inspection found children left unattended, an employee unqualified for their job, children’s allergies or chronic medical conditions not properly documented, cleaning carts and supplies left unattended, and parents and children not read a list of rights when they arrived. The GEO Group did not respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry about its conduct and practices.
There have been other accusations that claim detainees at the facility have been abused by guards and staff. One lawsuit alleges staff and guards removed female detainees from their cells overnight so they could sexually abuse the women, promised them money or assistance in their pending immigration cases in exchange for sexual favors, and kissed, fondled, and groped them in front of other detainees, including children.
At one point, ICE inspectors recommended docking The GEO Group hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments for violations at the Karnes facility, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Violations include non-functioning security cameras, not providing interpreters for all detainees, a number of safety concerns surrounding the company’s nearby construction, running out of baby formula, and not ensuring that its food service program for children and their mothers were sanitary, the news organization reported in 2016.
In 2015, a federal judge ordered the release of migrant children from those family detention centers due to their “deplorable conditions,” the Texas Observer reported.
Law firms representing The GEO Group
ThinkProgress reached out to law firms listed on federal complaints against The GEO Group to ask about their relationship with the company and whether the company’s treatment of immigrant families caused any concern. We requested statements from Boston Bever Klinge Cross & Chidester (BBKCC); Burke, Williams & Sorensen; Burns, Figa & Will; Cook, Craig & Francuzenko; Coppins Monroe; Cozen O’Connor; DiOrio & Sereni; Don G. Pope & Associates; Fitzpatrick & Kosanovich; Kelly, Morgan, Dennis, Corzine & Hansen; Littler Mendelson; Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester; Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin; Norton Rose Fulbright; Ogletree Deakins; Pierce Couch Hendrickson Baysinger & Green; Plauché Smith & Nieset; Vaughan & DeMuro; Walker, Ferguson & Ferguson; Walsh Gallegos Treviño Russo & Kyle; Wiederhold Kummerlen & Waronicki; and YLAW.
Thomas G. Ferguson, Jr. of Walker, Ferguson & Ferguson said in a telephone interview that his firm’s work for The GEO Group involved criminal matters, rather than immigration detention, and was unaware of the company’s work in youth immigration facilities. He said he would have to give some thought to whether to represent them in a case involving that aspect of their work. “Everybody is deserving of representation at one point,” Ferguson told ThinkProgress. “Lots of people commit heinous crimes that need representation, so I think you make that determination on a case-by-case basis.”
Lou Pappas, a partner at Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester, said in a phone interview that his firm does not “have that many cases left” with The GEO Group, and that the firm has represented them in the past. “No one is really involved in the immigration detention center issues” from his team, he said. Pappas then suggested that ThinkProgress should instead examine the many other issues facing the country, rather than his “boring” law firm.
The other firms did not respond. Two of those firms, however, put their relationship with The GEO Group front and center. YLAW, a New Mexico-based civil litigation firm, listed “Major Clients” including the company, along with GEO competitor CoreCivic (formerly Correction Corporation of America). YLAW deleted its client list webpage on Wednesday following ThinkProgress inquiries.
YLAW screenshot (August 14, 2018).
Other names listed included Apogee Physicians, the Albuquerque Public Schools Education Foundation, CCMSI, the City of Albuquerque, PPIC, Arkansas Best Freight, Borg Warner, Builders Trust, Capital Insurance Group, Chartis AIG/Philadelphia, CNA Insurance, Colony Insurance, Cyprexx Services, ENMRSH., Effective Claims Management, Everest Insurance, Fireman’s Fund Insurance, Gold Bear Insurance [SIC], Hanover World Insurance Company, IFG Insurance, Lennox Industries, Liberty Mutual, New Mexico Self Insured Fund [SIC], the New Mexico Association of Counties, NMPSIA, One Beacon Insurance, Pilot Travel Centers, Plaintiffs Contingency, Prosight Specialty, RLI Insuraance [SIC], Sedgwick Claims Management, Southwest Medical (Ardent), The Doctors Company, Third Party Lasix, Western Litigation, Western World Insurance Company, York International, Zurich Insurance.
YLAW screenshot (August 14, 2018).
A spokesperson for the Albuquerque Public Schools Education Foundation told ThinkProgress in an email on Tuesday: “We are not a major client or a client at all of YLaw firm, and they have mistakenly put our logo on the client list.” She said the firm had agreed to remove it and were in the process of so doing. A spokesperson for Liberty Mutual also denied that YLAW represents the company.
A spokesperson for BorgWarner Morse Tec LLC said by email that the firm “improperly identified” them as Borg Warner and said that the company “had no knowledge that The GEO Group was a client of YLAW prior to being contacted by ThinkProgress.”
Ed Zendel, risk services director for the New Mexico Municipal League (which operates the New Mexico Self Insurers’ Fund) told ThinkProgress that their particular YLAW attorney does not do any work for the detention company. “I am not bothered to be listed with GEO Group on the YLAW website,” he wrote. “It is my understanding that the firm has had a relationship with the company for a long period of time.”
The Hanover World Insurance Company no longer appears to exist (a spokesperson for The Hanover Insurance Group told ThinkProgress it has no relationship with YLAW). “Plaintiffs contingency” and “Third Party Lasix” appeared to be concepts, rather than companies. Johnson Controls, parent company of York International, declined to comment. The other companies did not respond to questions about how they felt about being listed alongside The GEO Group on the firm’s page.
Similarly, Wiederhold, Kummerlen & Waronicki, a Florida-based firm specializing in personal injury defense, civil rights defense, and insurance coverage law, listed “Representative Clients,” including The GEO Group, its GEO Care subsidiary, and its healthcare partner Correct Care Recovery Solutions. It also listed the Florida Department of Corrections, which relies on The GEO Group to house its prisoners, though a spokesperson for the department said in an email that it “never hired the firm,” and that it had actually been The GEO Group who hired Wiederhold, Kummerlen & Waronicki for representation in a lawsuit. Like YLAW, the firm deleted its entire client list from its website on Wednesday following ThinkProgress inquiries.
Their roster also included Ascendant Commercial Insurance Company, American Southern Insurance Company, Baldwin & Lyons, Brightclaim, B&L Taxi Company, Canal Insurance Company, Carolina Casualty Insurance Company, Castlepoint Florida Insurance Company, FiberLight, Florida Farm Bureau, Great American Custom Insurance Company, Guide One Insurance Company, North Carolina Farm Bureau, Pat Salmon and Sons, Professional Claims Managers, Rapids Water Park, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Sedgwick Claims Management, South Carolina Insurance Company, Southeastern Florida Transportation Group, St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Company, Stonington & Lantana, T.H.E. Insurance Company, Ticor Title Insurance Company, Tower Group Companies, Ullico Insurance Company, U.S. Security Company, and United Home Life Insurance Company.
It does not appear that U.S. Security Company exists anymore. Castlepoint Florida Insurance Company, South Carolina Insurance Company, and Tower Group Companies are all defunct companies that have been put into conservation and liquidation. The American Southern Insurance Company declined to comment. None of the other companies (or successor owners) responded to inquiries about their inclusion on the list.
The Trump administration’s ties to The GEO Group
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy mandates that all immigrants who enter the U.S. outside of a port of entry (crossing the border “illegally,” for example) are criminally prosecuted. It resulted in thousands of children separated from their parents after the parents were moved into criminal proceedings. The policy has not gone away: families could now be detained together in immigration detention facilities built to house family groups, some of them long-term.
The GEO Group is positioned to make a fortune off any immigration crackdown, but especially Trump’s, which favors detainment, use of private facilities, and an expansive view of which immigrants should be detained.
Accordingly, the company has invested heavily in electing President Trump and Republicans. According to the New York Times, The GEO Group has made a number of large donations benefiting Republican Party organizations that support House and Senate candidates as well as $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund.
The GEO Group is already reaping the rewards of its investment in anti-immigrant policies and candidates. The Wall Street Journal said the company, which emassed $2.3 billion revenue last year, saw its shares rise 14 percent this year as of July 2. In an earnings call earlier this month, according to MuckRock, the company’s CEO George Zoley told shareholders, “During the second quarter, we experienced higher utilization rates across our federal segment, which we expect to continue into the second half of the year.”
And as public outcry over the Trump administration’s policies reached fever pitch, The GEO Group has attempted to squash dissent, earlier this month sending a cease-and-desist letter to the immigration advocacy group Dream Defenders ahead of their planned protests at the company’s facilities.
Zoley was right: federal immigration authorities have already began the process of ramping up its capacity to hold families, including young children. ICE issued several notices in June and July asking for information on new detention facilities, including a Request for Information on 15,000 new family detention beds across the southern border and 20,000 beds at various military bases.
As long as the law firms continue to represent The GEO Group, they will be in a position to benefit from its future profits.