Public forum scheduled on private-prison operator
BY KAREN CAFFARINI Post-Tribune correspondent February 12, 2014 11:08PM
If you go
What: Forum on the GEO Group and a possible immigrant detention center in Hobart
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16
Where: Augustana Lutheran Church, 207 Kelly St., Hobart
Who: Concerned Citizens of Hobart
Updated: February 13, 2014 12:48PM
HOBART — The group Concerned Citizens of Hobart is hosting an educational public forum Sunday regarding for-profit prison builder GEO Group, which has purchased the former St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church property.
Residents fear the company’s intent is to build an immigrant detention center on the property.
Council President Jerry Herzog said he’s heard both from people opposed to having a possible immigrant detention center in the city and those in favor of it.
He said, however, that GEO Group has not approached the city with any plans for the property.
Both local and regional presentations will be offered, focusing on the impact such a center would have on property values and the Hobart Marsh Plan, GEO’s history regarding employees and detainees, and how current government policy affect immigrants and their families.
The Rev. Charles Strietelmeier, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Hobart, said the church board agreed to host the event.
While Strietelmeier said his congregation hasn’t taken a stand on the issue, he aired several of his own concerns with the possible project and the immigrant detention process itself.
“I’m concerned that they may have to maintain an occupancy rate, causing a lot of our Hispanics in the community to worry whether they’d be constantly watched. I’m not saying it will happen, but it could,” he said.
Strietelmeier also had concerns about the way GEO is said to treat its staff, safety and what would happen to detainees at the facility.
“I applaud city officials’ willingness to bring new development, but I believe this would not only be unhealthy development, it could discourage other developers that would be more advantageous to the city,” Strietelmeier said.
Local environmentalist Sandy O’Brien said the proposed site, a 40-acre parcel at 4101 W. 49th Ave., is in the heart of the Hobart Marsh Plan recently completed by the city. The plan would provide a large nature park with trails in almost 1,000 acres between Ridge Road and 61st Avenue.
“The GEO prison is not compatible with a nature and recreation plan to revitalize west Hobart,” she said.
Hobart resident Tom Dabertin said the GEO Group has a history of operating nonunion, low-paying and unsafe facilities.
O’Brien last week invited Hobart city officials to attend the forum, and one member said he and other members plan to be there.
“I’m going to gather information. I try to get all sides,” Council President Herzog, D-1st, said. “I need to look at what’s good for our city.”
After an uproar at a December city council meeting where strong opposition was voiced to an detention center, Mayor Brian Snedecor said he contacted the company and was assured there were no immediate plans for the property.