Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks at a press conference for the Yes! For a Better San Diego campaign. / Photo by Megan Wood

The Yes! For a Better San Diego campaign says it will give to charity $50,000 it received from a private prison company after a City Council vote this week drew attention to the donation.

The GEO Group, which runs the U.S. Marshal Western Regional Detention Facility in downtown San Diego and immigration detention facilities throughout the country, donated $50,000 to the campaign to put a measure on the ballot that would raise hotel taxes to fund a Convention Center expansion, homeless services and road repairs. Advocates and even some City Council members expressed concerns over the donation and what it could mean for the company’s influence in city politics or homelessness services.

The campaign will donate the money to various organizations to help vulnerable San Diegans, spokeswoman Rachel Laing said in a statement. Laing also noted that it has already put in place stronger procedures to screen contributions.

“Our campaign is about bringing people together to reduce homelessness, create quality blue collar jobs and fix our streets,” Laing said. “This contribution, made over a year ago, has distracted from that vital core mission, so we’re setting things right.”

The company’s donation drew criticism when it was revealed before Monday’s Council vote, and highlighted the company’s increasing expansion into the homeless services arena.

After explaining that she wouldn’t be voting to put the measure on the March 2020 ballot on Monday, City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery flagged the donation as a major concern.

“The private prison industry has found a way to reinvent itself over and over and over again,” Montgomery said. “And I’m very, very concerned that with the most vulnerable population that our unsheltered population is, that this is the perfect segue for this industry. I’m very concerned with that and I don’t think it should be brushed over. And in fact, I’m kind of insulted that it has been.”

Montgomery, who won office in 2018 after promising to pursue criminal justice reforms, emphasized the disproportionate number of shelter beds that go to black people – 29 percent, when barely 6 percent of the region is black – to highlight the connection between prison populations, which are also disproportionately black, and homelessness.

“That sounds to me like the prison population,” Montgomery said. “When we get involved with industries like this and we take money, we end up owing. That’s it, that’s just the way it is.”

Another vote is still needed to place the measure on the ballot after additional wording was included on Monday, but the majority of the San Diego City Council appears to support putting it on the March 2020 ballot.

The GEO Group made its first $25,000 donation in May 2018 when panic had set in among campaign leaders tasked with gathering signatures for the measure.

A June 2018 email from Betsy Brennan, CEO of the Downtown Partnership, to board members shows just how desperate the campaign was.

“If each of our members collects 50 signatures, we can do more than our part to ensure the initiative is included on the ballot this November,” she wrote. “Please reach out to colleagues, friends, family members, and all registered San Diego voters who have not yet signed a petition to place the measure on the ballot.”

The company gave another $25,000 in August that year.

In San Diego County, the GEO Group operates the San Diego Day Reporting Center, a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated individuals, in addition to the Marshal facility downtown. The company is rapidly expanding these types of programs.

During a July earnings call, the company said it had committed to expanding re-entry and rehabilitation programs to all the state correctional facilities it manages across the country by the end of next year. The aggressive expansion would increase its annual spending on such programs by 50 percent to $15 million.

But a company spokeswoman said the donations do not represent a desire to provide services that could eventually be funded by the ballot measure.

The GEO Group has “absolutely no intention to expand our business from providing secure residential services to homeless services in San Diego County,” said a company spokeswoman in a statement. “The GEO Group supports important civic causes in the communities we serve and where our employees live. Our commitment to Yes! For a Better San Diego is based solely on that principle.”

The GEO Group and other private prison companies have come under particular scrutiny in California in recent years as lawmakers have pushed criminal justice reforms, and the Trump administration has pursued aggressive immigration enforcement that has led immigration detention facilities’ populations to swell. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill that aims to phase private detention facilities out of the state entirely.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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