Casey Tolan

GARY, Ind.—The private prison companies that build immigrant detention centers seem to follow a playbook when it comes to expansion: Target an economically struggling community and promise jobs and development.

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Gary, an impoverished industrial city south of Chicago with a high unemployment rate, appears to be a perfect mark.

But when the GEO Group, a prison company with a history of abuse complaints, came to town last month proposing an immigrant detention center here, it was a different story. With swift organizing, a diverse group of activists forced them to withdraw in less than two weeks.

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That the proposal would be so quickly defeated in a city so hurting for jobs suggests that opposition to immigrant detention may be growing across the country. And notably, African-American activists and clergy, including the local Black Lives Matter chapter, were among the leaders of the protest movement in this city that's 85% black.

“Their strategy was that they thought that black people would not care,” said Reverend Cheryl Rivera, one of the leaders of the anti-detention center movement, who is African-American. "But the destiny of brown people and black people and disparaged communities are inextricably linked and intertwined."

GEO, which runs 64 prisons around the U.S., has been trying to open a detention center in the northwest Indiana area for years with the expectation that the federal government will soon need one in the region. The company's proposal for a detention center in the neighboring town of Hobart was rejected two years ago.

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In Gary, GEO wanted to build a sprawling, 800-bed detention center across the street from the local airport, in what’s currently a windblown, empty field of weeds.

The field where GEO would have built the detention center.
Casey Tolan

When the proposal was first announced early last month, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson came out in strong support, hailing the benefits it would have for the city’s tax base and the 200 jobs it was expected to create.

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Those jobs would be a big deal here. Gary's unemployment rate is about 45%, Freeman-Wilson told me. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the metropolitan area's rate is only 5.4%, but that doesn’t count people who have stopped looking for work.) The city went downhill after its steel mills began laying people off in the ‘60s, and businesses and white residents moved out. At its height in 1960, Gary’s population was nearly 180,000; today, it’s about 78,000.

To call Gary a struggling city is to put it lightly. You can drive down blocks here where every single house is vacant, burned out, or gaping open behind smashed windows. Broadway, the main drag, is lined with big, handsome brick buildings that have every window boarded up.

“It’s like little Detroit,” said Rev. Charles Strietelmeier, a Lutheran pastor in a town nearby who was also involved in the anti-detention center movement.

Burned out buildings in Gary
Casey Tolan

But for a group of clergy members and activists, the prospect of new jobs wasn’t enough to justify opening a detention center in the city. Within days of GEO's proposal first being reported, the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations went on the offensive.

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“We decided that it was a moral issue,” Rivera, the interfaith group's executive director, said. Her group quickly organized other clergy leaders, including the influential regional conference of Baptist preachers.

"The most morally reprehensible thing for me was that it could be even considered in a place like Gary, where 90% of the population is black—that we would even think of being involved with anything that would target black and brown people," Rivera said.

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The coalition of activists picketed government meetings where the proposal was considered, and handed out news articles about past complaints at GEO facilities, which include sexual harassment, wrongful deaths and improper treatment of inmates. And they argued that the jobs created wouldn't be worth it. "We saw the possibility that Gary could become a prison city," Strietelmeier said.

A GEO spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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The activists also teamed up with the local Black Lives Matter chapter. Immigrant detention might seem out of the wheelhouse of the movement’s focus on police shootings, but Alicia Nunn, one of the chapter’s leaders, said her members enthusiastically supported the effort.

“We advocate for an end to the criminalization of people,” said Nunn, an adjunct professor at Indiana University-Northwest. “Mass incarceration goes right along with police brutality…and you're dealing with a company that has a nine-page rap sheet of human rights violations.”

Approval from the local Board of Zoning Appeals was required for the detention center—and at the board's meeting on Nov. 10, about 100 people crowded into the hearing room, chanting slogans and waving signs.

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The day after the raucous protest, Freeman-Wilson, the mayor, announced that she had changed her mind and now opposed the proposal. And a few days later, GEO withdrew its request to rezone the property to allow a prison facility.

“Twelve days is the quickest victory I have ever seen in my history of organizing,” Rivera said.

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson
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Freeman-Wilson claimed that the protests didn’t play a major role in her decision to change course. “We saw this as an opportunity to create jobs for local residents,” she told me, sitting in her spacious office in the neoclassical city hall building. “You have to evaluate every proposal.” She said she had become “concerned” by complaints about the conditions in other GEO facilities, particularly reports that some female detainees had been sexually harassed by guards.

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Activists say they think GEO may try to construct a detention center in the region again. The prison company still owns land in Hobart.

But if they try to build there, they’re sure to face more spirited opposition. "We've learned that we have more power to change public policies if we work together," Rivera said.

This post has been updated to clarify the unemployment rate in Gary.

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Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.