"House Chamber, Florida State Capitol"

"House Chamber, Florida State Capitol" by StevnM_61 on flickr

Florida’s Prison Privatization Mess

Florida is embarking upon the largest prison privatization plan in history. As part of a last-minute budget amendment, the state legislature mandated the privatization of the correctional services of 18 counties in south Florida, for a total of nearly 30 correctional facilities.

No state has ever undertaken such an ambitious expansion of their private prison system, and for good reason; private prisons consistently fail to live up to contractual obligations, don’t save money,  and provide less efficient services than government-run prisons.

But that hasn’t stopped Florida from forging ahead, even despite the fact that the Senate’s Budget Chief at one point even called this initiative an experiment to see if the state could save money by privatization.  While that’s not a gamble most sane politicians would ever want to make, JD Alexander was probably swayed, as were many other politicians, by the more than ¾ of a million dollars that the GEO Group spent lobbying the state legislature in the last election cycle.

Thankfully, one of Alexander’s fellow Republicans, Mike Fasano, is able to easily identify the root of the deficiencies of private prisons, and has been challenging this plan from the get-go.

“Talk about a dangerous situation for the public! Because, in my opinion, privatizing our prisons, you bring a private company in, all they care about is the bottom line. That’s why they’re a company. That’s why they trade on the New York Stock Exchange, that’s why they trade on any exchange for that matter, they have stockholders, they have board members to be answerable to; therefore, they have to make a profit and by doing that, in my opinion, you put people at risk.”

(The article cited here goes into a lot more detail on the lack of oversight and transparency of the industry, which in turn results in a breakdown of accountability)

In addition to Mr. Fasano’s agitation within the legislature, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union for COs in the state, has also come to the rescue of Florida’s prisoners by filing a lawsuit seeking to prevent the privatization push.  The lawsuit contends that the process by which the plan was passed actually violates the state constitution, part of which is designed to keep budgetary and policy decisions separate.  By utilizing the budget as the sole forum for discussing the plan, legislative leaders avoided a public debate that could have proven disastrous to the interests of privateers.   The legislature also pulled a nifty trick by tying the plan to the entire corrections budget, making it virtually veto-proof.

And as with all privatization ventures pushed by conservatives, this plan isn’t quite as rosy as it first seemed.  The state initially thought it was going to save nearly $20 million in operating expenses by converting these prisons to private operation.  But – oopsie! – both Governor Scott and JD Alexander, the budget chief, forgot to tell lawmakers about the $25 million the state would still be on the hook for in compensation for the literally thousands of state employees who will lose their jobs as a result of the privatization.

Now I know what you’re thinking – anyone could overlook a $25 million payout.  Well you’d be right, if you were talking about legislators who’ve already been purchased by the private prison companies that stand to make a killing off this deal.

The White Knight, Mike Fasano, has now called for a hearing to review the privatization plan that had the hidden $25 million tab.  I really love this guy, because he just tells it like it is and more:

“Unfortunately, the private-prison issue was pushed down everyone’s throats during the session and done very quietly and behind the scenes… There were never any public hearings. …”

“This is all about the almighty dollars for the GEOs of the world…It’s all about political contributions that were made, and the taxpayers are going to pay the consequences.”