Not All Private Prisons are the Same

At the National Black Chamber of Commerce, we change lives through our Project Rebound program, designed to place at-risk applicants into meaningful jobs where they can contribute to society. I am pleased to report that we recently visited another place that changes lives for the better, a most unexpected place: a detention center. Two of them, actually.

When you turn on the news today, it seems everybody is bashing private prisons. They cause mass incarceration and cage children at the border, the saying goes, and take poor care of those in their custody.

Since I have a background in Corrections and have been in a dozen prisons, I decided to see for myself. My wife, Kay and I were recently part of a group that visited the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Fl., and the South Bay Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility in South Bay, Fl. Both are managed by the GEO Group, a corrections firm that has had its share of negative headlines. My conclusion: the progressive and media narrative is wrong. Both facilities help people improve their lives in ways that are inspirational – and go far beyond what any state prison would do.

In the first place, neither Broward nor South Bay seem like the stereotypical image of a prison. The Broward facility – which GEO runs under contract for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – is more like a college dorm. Detainees from 43 countries mill about in their clean, air-conditioned, bunk bed-style rooms (equipped with flat-screen TVs) or in the yard, where they enjoy an artificial turf soccer field; weightlifting equipment and a beach volleyball net with sand.

They have a pharmacy stocked with medication and access to their attorneys and to religious services; in fact, a Muslim prayer service was underway the day we were there. The cafeteria even has a salad bar.

South Bay, which GEO runs for the Florida Department of Corrections, gives off a similar, surprisingly relaxed vibe. Cheerful, brightly colored artwork lines the walls, along with motivational sayings from Mark Twain, Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The population includes murderers and other potentially high-risk offenders, yet there are no iron bars, and the guards don’t carry guns or batons. From what we observed, inmates and staff treat each other with dignity and respect.

More important than the appearance, however, was the substance. Even at Broward – where the average stay is only about 55 days, in contrast to the media image of unlimited detention – I sensed optimism and faith among the detainees, who were cordial and cooperative. These guys are going to have a future when they get out, I thought to myself.

But it especially was at South Bay that the life-changing potential of the GEO Group stood out. GEO is so focused on helping inmates re-enter society and promoting rehabilitation that they have a division for it: The Continuum of Care. The company invests $10 million a year into this noble mission, and there is growing evidence that it works.

We saw the potential of this approach simply by walking from room to room. It seemed that everybody was busy, focused and learning something. Everyone had a purpose. There were classes and power point presentations on everything from computers and high-tech printing to horticulture and a Commercial Driver’s License classroom that featured a simulator of an 18-wheeler truck.Ex-Offenders can have Commercial Drivers Licenses.

We dined on lunch prepared by the culinary “students”. They prepared fresh spinach with strawberry salad. Chicken marsala, mashed potatoes, carrots and green beans were the entrees and vegetables followed by flourless chocolate cake. Ah, and we won’t forget the iced tea with fresh mint. When they leave the prison, they will have culinary licenses and can work in restaurants as chefs.

In the religion room, which offers an urban ministry instructor’s program, an inmate quoted Bible verses and explained his pride in the program. He is destined for the ministry, I’m sure.The computer software room featured an eager inmate explaining to us – in between doing power points – how he is already communicating with his GEO post-release counselor about potential housing and jobs.

Equally remarkable: we witnessed an actual “call center,” where 10 GEO employees were taking calls from released offenders and helping them find food, homes and jobs. It operates 24-7.

Overall, we sensed hope, pride and optimism about the future.And we left feeling hopeful ourselves, determined to bring GEO’s can-do spirit back to our own Project Rebound. We saw people on our tour who would make good job candidates because they are determined to turn their lives around. We are eager to help in any way we can.

Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®.

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