TBT: FAU was Ahead of DOJ on Private Prisons

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The Department of Justice’s announcement Thursday it would cease use of private prisons hopefully closes an unfortunate chapter in American history. From Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates:

Private prisons don’t compare favorably to Bureau of Prisons facilities in terms of safety or security or services, and now with the decline in the federal prison population, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to do something about that

Commercializing the prison system fostered myriad problems; this isn’t the site to dissect those problems, however. From the more frivolous side of crime-as-commodity, the sheer absurdity of private prisons was underscored three years ago when one such group tried to purchase the naming rights to a college football stadium.

Rewind to 2013, and GEO Group — “the world’s leading provider of correctional, detention, and community reentry services” — offered Florida Atlantic University $6 million for the brand-new home to Owl football.

Now, the flood of money into big-time college football has given life to some ridiculous stories, like the Fiesta Bowl junkets. Naming rights are a cottage industry of silliness, underscored just this week with the one-time GMAC and GoDaddy Bowl becoming the Dollar General Bowl.

From cars to web hosting to cans of off-brand bug spray; one bowl game offers a pretty fitting metaphor for the state of non-power conferences, as TV executives would have it.

GEO Group’s efforts to purchase the naming rights of FAU Stadium, however, marked a nadir in the process.

While offering up $6 million for a college football stadium, GEO Group was cutting costs elsewhere. Stories of extreme cost-cutting surfaced throughout 2013, the same year of the proposed naming rights deal. An investigation at Talking Points Memo details the consequences:

Numerous complaints by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cite Geo Group for exposing prisoners and guards to mold; one such complaint was blamed for a prisoner suicide in 2007. In a Geo Group facility in eastern Mississippi, cell doors had broken locks that could only be opened from the inside by prisoners, not by the corrections officers.

The thought of a college athletic department associating itself with this is one I have difficulty wrapping my mind around. However, it speaks to the desperation the growing financial gap has created.

Football programs need modern facilities to keep up. Modern facilities cost money. That money has to come from somewhere.

In the same year of the proposed GEO Group partnership, FAU joined Conference USA — a league that’s been ravaged both by conference realignment and the changing TV contract landscape.

Credit to FAU students, faculty and fans who voiced their very legitimate concerns, however. The GEO Group deal was squashed shortly after it became public knowledge. With news of the company’s stock plummeting upon the Justice Department’s announcement, GEO Group may not have been able to honor the deal all the through as is.

Regardless, the protests of opposition blocked the deal, and FAU Stadium remains FAU Stadium, the field itself bears the name of college football coaching legend, Howard Schnellenberger.

Schnellenberger finished his illustrious career with the Owls, appearing in a pair of bowl games at the pinnacle of his tenure.

A field named for a coaching legend may not generate a six-figure check once a year. Chalk my sentiment up to naivety, but I would like to believe that even in 2016, it’s more indicative of the spirit of the game than taking money from an industry like private prisons.