Florida Politicians Want to Allow Private Prisons to Make Lots of Money Without Florida Taxpayers Knowing About It

Posted on January 22, 2012

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About one week ago, Florida politicians introduced a bill that would effectively “sell” 16,000 inmates to private prison corporations by privatizing 29 of the state’s prison facilities. At the same time, those same politicians introduced another bill that would shield details of any contracts offered to private prison corporations until after everything is finalized.

Of course, when states sell inmates to private prison corporations, they don’t get any money in return. Instead, they pay the prison corp. to “take care” of the inmates, and by taking over 29 prison facilities in a state that really likes to lock people up – Florida has the third-highest imprisoned population in the U.S. with nearly 168,000 people behind bars – this will be an extremely lucrative contract for either GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), or both. In response to this, Alex Friedmann, president of the Private Corrections Institute (PCI) and a national expert on prison privatization, issued the following press release:

  “The renewed legislative effort to privatize 29 state prison facilities reeks of special interest peddling and a giveaway of taxpayer funds to the private prison industry,” Friedmann said. “Considering there is scant evidence that private prisons in Florida have saved the state money, and the documented scandals and problems involving private prisons in the past, the repeated efforts by the legislature to privatize Region IV can best be explained as political payback.”

The PCI also quoted the following statistics via FollowtheMoney.org:

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, in 2010 GEO Group and its executives gave over $705,000 to political candidates and parties in Florida, while CCA donated $138,994 – primarily to Republican causes. Further, both CCA and GEO made contributions to Governor Scott’s inaugural fund in the amounts of $5,000 and $25,000, respectively. Since 2004, GEO has given $1.8 million to Florida political candidates, parties and committees. Also, based on Senate records, GEO paid its Florida lobbyists between $220,000 and $360,000 to influence state officials since October 2010, which PCI criticized as “pay-to-play” politics.

Just in case a press release from an organization critical of private prisons is not enough proof, here is an excerpt from the Tampa Bay Times describing the bills:

Before a standing-room-only crowd, the Senate Rules Committee voted Wednesday to introduce bills (now numbered SB 2036 and SB 2038) directing the prison system to hire a for-profit vendor to run prisons in 18 counties by July 1. A second bill (2036) would eliminate a requirement that the prison system do a cost benefit analysis and develop a “business case” to justify privatization. The new bill does not require those steps until after a contractor is hired. But the choice is subject to approval by a panel of legislators.

And just for kicks, here is the actual language of bill 2036 which does not require disclosure of how privatization is beneficial until AFTER the contracts are signed:

Outsourcing or Privatization of Agency Functions; Providing that certain information relating to the outsourcing or privatization of an agency function that is expressly required by law is not required to be included in the agency’s legislative budget request until after the contract for such functions is executed; providing that procurements for outsourcing or privatizing agency functions that are expressly required by law are exempt from the requirement that they be evaluated for feasibility, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency; providing that certain requirements that apply to Department of Corrections’ contracts do not apply to contracts for outsourcing or privatizing the operation and maintenance of correctional facilities which are expressly required by law, etc.

So far, the only Florida groups voicing opposition to the bills appear to be prison employees, who will face nearly 4,000 job losses from the bills, according to PCI. This is an example of how dependent large sectors of our society have become in regards to the prison-industrial complex.

The Tampa Bay Times chose as its poster child of negative impact from privatization Reshae Cherry,  27-year-old mother who works as a corrections officer in Charlotte, Fla. “I want to keep food on my table. I want a good doctor for my children,” she testified in front of the Florida senate when the bills were discussed.

Meanwhile, 18% of all Florida inmates are in for a nonviolent drug offense, according to the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC). Also, state law requires that all offenders serve at least 85% of their given sentence, meaning time off for good behavior is not much of an incentive.

So here we have Florida politicians willing to axe 4,000 jobs rather than rethink state laws and sentencing guidelines regarding drug offenses just so two private prison corporations can get a giant contract and make millions and millions of dollars.

Again, lawmakers do not have to prove that there will be any savings – and there is no substantial, consistent proof that GEO Group or CCA save state money, despite the many, many test cases there are to look on for evidence. From the New York Times:

“There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly,” said Russ Van Vleet, a former co-director of the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center. “But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct.”

In a typical example of sleazy politics, J.D. Alexander, the Florida Senate budget chairman who is spear-heading the non-disclosure contract bills, claimed in March of last year that he wanted to have “several bidders,” even though it is common knowledge that there are only two private prison companies in the country capable of taking on such a contract.

That’s where those political contributions come to make an effect. According to the National Institute on Money in Politics, Alexander heads a PAC called Alliance for a Strong Economy (of course), that has received $250,000 from the official Florida Republican party alone. With Geo Group and CCA giving about $1 million to Republican causes, there’s ample evidence to suggest Mr. Alexander has possibly been influenced by the groups he appears to be tailor-making a big-time contract for.

But it’s all to save Floridians money, right?

If only Florida politicians would think about how to make the system better rather than how to make money off of it, maybe some good could come out of the recent political desire to cut prison costs. Maybe Alexander should take a look at what fellow Republican Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, is doing, instead of catering to private prison corporations.

“Money Prison” image from here

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