Prison company seeks to open center for federal felons near Sacramento homes, schools

The south Sacramento building where GEO Reentry Services seeks to open a day facility for released federal offenders.
The south Sacramento building where GEO Reentry Services seeks to open a day facility for released federal offenders.

One of the nation’s largest operators of private prisons is seeking to open a day facility for released criminal offenders in south Sacramento, but several community members are objecting to the proposal because the location is near multiple schools and disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The city of Sacramento’s Planning Commission voted 10-2 in December to approve a conditional use permit for GEO Reentry Services to open a counseling facility on Franklin Boulevard, near Florin Road. One week later, a group of neighborhood residents appealed that decision, forcing an upcoming City Council vote. The council is expected to debate the issue in March.

According to a city staff report, the GEO facility would provide job training, behavioral therapy and family reintegration for up to 30 former inmates of federal prisons. Those inmates were returned to Sacramento because it was their “community of origin,” and currently travel to Fresno, Oakland or San Francisco to receive the services GEO is seeking to provide here because there is no other facility for federal offenders in the region.

The facility would also perform drug tests and fingerprinting and collect DNA samples from certain offenders, according to a city staff report.

South Sacramento resident Effie Gant filed the appeal, which was co-signed by 14 other residents. In her appeal letter, Gant wrote the reporting center is “wholly inconsistent with the progress we view is taking place in this region.”

Gant said the center would work against investments on Florin Road and at the Delta Shores retail and residential development being built roughly 1 mile away. She noted there are three public schools and multiple residential neighborhoods near the site.

“It’s just not an adequate or appropriate space for that kind of program,” said Gant in an interview with The Sacramento Bee. “It’s just too close to the schools.”

The proposed facility would be down the street from Bowling Green Elementary and close to Luther Burbank High School and Fern Bacon Middle School. The center would be located in a business park of single-story structures set back off the street that currently houses a chiropractic office, an insurance company, a realty office and several other businesses.

Rachel Kienzler, the western region business development director for GEO, told the Planning Commission that inmates receiving services at the Sacramento site will have complied with the terms of their sentences for at least two years and are in the final four to six months of their sentences. Some are monitored electronically and many hold jobs in the area.

“The project will benefit Sacramento residents,” Kienzler wrote in a statement to The Bee. “The proposed Day Reporting Center will provide evidence-based supportive services, accountability, and behavior change programming that helps those returning to their families and communities to obtain long-term, sustainable employment, successfully reconnect with their families, improve their decision-making skills, and reduce the likelihood that they will become involved in the justice system in the future.”

Kienzler said the inmates registered with the facility have been charged with federal offenses, and “typically those involve fraud, some sort of internet crime or drug cases.” However, she added that GEO “cannot make a blanket statement that would automatically say that we won’t take this or that type of offense.”

There were nearly 5,000 federal offenders facing judges in California in fiscal year 2016, and 672 of those went through the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, according to the most recent available numbers from the United States Sentencing Commission. That court has jurisdiction over Sacramento and surrounding counties.

Following national trends, most of those Eastern California defendants were arrested for drug trafficking, predominantly involving methamphetamine, and the median sentence was 60 months. About 14 percent of offenders had firearms charges. Child pornographers made up 4 percent of Eastern California cases with 27 offenders, while 21 percent of offenders were involved in fraud. Six cases in the Eastern District involved sexual abuse, nine involved assault and another six involved robbery.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that 3,545 inmates were released across California in 2017.

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found federal prison populations have surged in recent years. From 1980 to 2013, the number of prisoners in federal facilities increased from 24,000 to more than 215,000, making it the largest prison system in the nation, though that number has steadily declined since and is now about 183,000.

Jake Horowitz, Pew’s Director of Research and Policy, said that the time federal prisoners are spending in supervised release is also increasing, with the average formerly incarcerated federal prisoner being monitored for four years after release.

The longer supervision term could creating a “stacking effect,” increasing the overall population of those on federal supervised release in coming years because “even if the number of people being admitted to supervision is going down, you have more people staying longer,” he said.

Last year, GEO considered opening a federal reporting facility on Del Paso Boulevard in North Sacramento, but ran into trouble with the city’s zoning administrator, who said the company needed to obtain a conditional use permit to operate a “correctional facility” on the site. GEO had argued its facility was a “counseling office,” but its appeal of the zoning administrator’s ruling was overruled by the Planning Commission.

GEO is now applying for the conditional use permit as a correctional facility on Franklin Boulevard.

Jesse Reese, president of the Meadowview Neighborhood Association, spoke in opposition to the Franklin Boulevard project during the Planning Commission meeting. Reese said Tuesday he feared its presence would pull down property values, and that it continued a pattern of using the low-income area to site social service and other facilities that were sometimes viewed as undesirable by more affluent neighborhoods.

“They seem to think anytime they want to do something .... put it in the south area,” Reese said. “We already have challenges as it is but things have been going in the right direction as far as I’m concerned, and (the day center) would be something that would tilt us back.”

Planning Commissioner Darryl Lucien agreed. He said during the December commission meeting that while reentry facilities have “in many instances proven to be value-added,” the Franklin Boulevard location would make people in that area “feel dumped on.”

“It’s a feeling overall that because of so few amenities and the challenges that you encounter when you cross certain intersections and drive into certain neighborhoods, it tends to elevate stress levels,” Lucien said.

The Sacramento City Unified School District sent the city a letter opposing the center, saying the district was “extremely concerned for the safety and well being of its students” attending nearby schools.

Kienzler said GEO would be a good addition to the area. She said the company helps organize community cleanups, gang awareness events and other community outreach around their centers.

“We are a responsible tenant, neighbor and community partner,” Kienzler said.

Gant and the other neighbors appealing the center also expressed concerns about GEO Group’s reputation.

“The Geo Group is the second largest private prison operator in the United States; an institution with unclean hands that is continuously embroiled in scandal and lawsuits concerning business practices,” they wrote in their appeal letter.

GEO Group, parent company of Geo Reentry Services, has been accused of forcing undocumented immigrants at its facilities in Colorado and Washington to work for $1 a day. GEO has denied the allegations and said the work programs and pay rates at its facilities are set by federal government standards. Court records show that GEO Group has been sued dozens times in California, often by inmates alleging mistreatment.

Another suit charged that a subsidiary of GEO illegally donated $225,000 to a political action group supporting President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. The donation was illegal because of a federal ban against federal contractors donating to political campaigns, according to the suit filed by the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center.

The company also this month settled a sexual harassment complaint filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office on behalf of 16 female correctional officers inside two GEO-run Arizona facilities that charged they were harassed and retaliated against between 2006 and 2012. The allegations included male correctional officers using sexual explicit language and at least two instances of male employees using force in unwanted sexual encounters. The complaint also alleges that GEO retaliated against the female employees after they complained by disciplining them, firing them or placing them in unsafe conditions inside the prisons.

GEO Group agreed to pay $550,000 to the female employees and “send letters of regret,” according to a press release from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Kienzler said the suits “are not related to GEO Reentry Services programs, so therefore I am not familiar with them and do not have any additional comments.”

GEO operates 22 daytime reporting centers throughout California and has been in that business in the state for more than 10 years. Part of its conditional use permit for the Franklin Boulevard location would require it to include neighborhood association and school board members on its “accountability board,” a requirement GEO agreed to prior to Commission approval.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis