A Family Affair

Wackenhut Corp.'s days as a South Florida firm are over, but its legacy lives on

Similarly, the Wackenhut stewardship of the Doncaster Prison in the United Kingdom was the subject of extensive and hostile local press commentary, which dwelt on two suicides that occurred there. In 1995, more than a year into the term of the company's contract, the UK Independent Prison Reform Trust produced a report on Doncaster that the media dubbed "The Doncatraz File." In the words of the British Observer newspaper, the report "was a stinker. Violence was still common. Doncaster had the worst record of any jail for attempted suicides."

Back in the United States, the picture loomed no brighter, as horror stories poured out of detention centers in the late 1990s with tidal regularity. At the Wackenhut-run Jena Juvenile Justice Center for boys in Louisiana, the company went through five wardens and turned over the entire staff three times in a year. Multiple cases of brutality inflicted by hastily trained, often unqualified guards earning close to minimum wage were condemned by a 2000 U.S. Department of Justice report that alleged inmates had mutilated themselves just to get to the relative safety of the infirmary. Wackenhut was further named in a March 2000 Justice Department lawsuit that sought to protect imprisoned boys from harm at the hands of guards and fellow inmates.

In Texas, Wackenhut Corp.'s $12 million-per-year contract to run a state jail was rescinded in 1999 and the company was fined $625,000 for inadequate performance, while 12 former guards were indicted for having sex with female inmates. In New Mexico four inmates died in Wackenhut prisons in Santa Rosa and Hobbs within two years of the facilities' 1998 opening, while riots claimed the life of a guard and inflicted extensive fire damage.

The Quiet American
The Herald
The Quiet American

The company claims it has done everything possible to care for its prisoners. On April 16, 2000, George Foley, Wackenhut Correction Corp.'s CEO, told the Miami Herald: "I think we have adopted all of the progressive policies to impede and stop these kinds of incidents." Meanwhile, George Wackenhut has steadfastly refused to admit any involvement with the CIA, despite the overlapping shadows in the twilit worlds of espionage and security. Still, in more than one interview, he has seemed to relish the suggestion of the tie. Spy magazine, in a 1992 interview with the company founder, pointed out that CIA deputy director Frank Carlucci was a sometime-Wackenhut board member and that Wackenhut senior executive Bruce Berckmans had formerly been assigned to the Mexico City CIA station.

The company has developed expertise not only in keeping people locked in but also in keeping others out. By all accounts, George Wackenhut's homes have been showcases of security techno-wizardry, awash with laser, infrared, microwave, and photocell devices, their occupants tracked by closed-circuit television systems, connected by private radios, and their conversations monitored by George from a station at his desk. His enigmatic mix of ultraconservatism and kitsch, of showmanship and secrecy, never stood in the way of building a billion-dollar business out of other people's fears. His former home in Coral Gables was a neo-medieval fantasy of turrets, battlements, and suits of armor, while the yacht at the dock was called Top Secret, with twin motor launches Cloak and Dagger.

Though George's material desires are sure to be fulfilled by the bonanza from the company's sale, some Wackenhut shareholders are unhappy. This year, Boca Raton attorney Paul Geller filed suit on behalf of two shareholders arguing that the terms of the sale to Group 4 Falck unjustly enrich B stockholders (which includes the bulk of Wackenhut directors, who the suit claims breached their duties) and undercompensates A holders. "We believe that an injustice has occurred," Geller says.

New Times visited Wackenhut Director of Corporate Relations Pat Cannan at the firm's headquarters on Wackenhut Drive in Palm Beach Gardens the day after the sale. George's twice-life-size portrait still hung on the wall. Unremarkable as corporate art, it depicts him standing at trim, ramrod attention in an awkward suit. There's an embalmed glow to the hawkish, thin-lipped features and ironing-board chin. In the center of the cavernous foyer, an ornate-tiered fountain devoid of water lent a desolate touch.

After 40 minutes discussing the company's history, finances, and the consequences of the sale (including 35 jobs lost at HQ), Cannan brought the meeting to a close ("I've got to prepare something for Group 4 in 20 minutes"). So New Times asked to meet with the boss. His office telephoned back that George Wackenhut -- like the showman who knows when to exit and a good secret agent who knows where the exits are -- had just left the building for the last time.

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