On December 3, nine activists were arrested as part of a protest at the Boca Raton offices of the GEO Group. Early Tuesday, five of them were again taken into custody as prosecutors in West Palm Beach added felony charges to the misdemeanor counts the protesters already faced.
The GEO Group, the notorious private-prison giant that opened its new $57-million headquarters in Boca Raton this past August, has made local headlines related to its federally contracted facilities that hold detainees arrested under the Trump administration's escalation of immigration enforcement. GEO runs some 13 detention centers in Florida, including a major ICE "substation" in Miramar and the Broward Transitional Center in Deerfield Beach. Protesters are nothing new to GEO, which projected $2.49 billion in revenue for the year in what has quickly become one of America's fastest growing and most lucrative industries.
In December, a group of roughly 40 activists gathered at GEO's corporate offices just west of Interstate 95 off Yamato Road to protest what is widely considered the prison company's human rights abuses and mass-incarceration profiteering. The protesters shut down GEO's headquarters, blocking access to buildings and parking lots alike.
Nine, referred to as the GEO9, were arrested and charged with misdemeanors that included trespassing and noise ordinance violations.
This past Friday, one of the GEO9, Alexis Butler, was unexpectedly arrested again — this time at her home in Dania Beach, by Broward Sheriff’s deputies.
Broward Sheriff's Office did not respond to multiple calls for comment Tuesday.
Booked on new charges — this time, felony counts of conspiracy to false imprisonment and false imprisonment, as well as misdemeanor criminal mischief — Butler was held in jail in Fort Lauderdale for four days.
Her arrest came as a shock to other GEO9 protesters, several of whom were scheduled to appear in court Tuesday. Late Monday night, they told New Times they feared Butler's fate would be one they would share in, with another arrest and more serious charges.
Their fears were prescient.
After taking part in a support rally that numbered 15 people outside Palm Beach County Courthouse in West Palm Beach early Tuesday morning, the five activists went to their scheduled bond hearing, where prosecutors announced additional charges. Taken into custody were Wendy King, 36, of Coral Springs; Mathi Paguth, 40, of Lake Worth; Nicholas Vazquez, 22, of Miami; Carlos Valnera Naranjo, 36, of Hollywood; and David Hitchcock, 30, of Dania Beach.
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All, including Butler, are now facing up to 15 years in prison for what prosecutors say were their coordinated efforts on December 3 that went beyond nonviolent protest. They are alleged to have kept GEO employees from getting to work, frightening staff, and keeping other employees from leaving.
The activists say the new charges are bogus, cooked up to intimidate and punish them more than two months after their protest at GEO Group HQ.
A spokesman for GEO Group on Tuesday would not comment on the GEO9 accusations or arrests.
The five protesters remained in jail Tuesday in Palm Beach County, hoping efforts to raise $4,500 apiece to bond out will come through soon.