First published on WhyIHateCCA

A tiny jail window.

Historic jail in Florida. Photo by Marsanne Petty.

Many lawmakers in Florida, home of the GEO Group, are enamored with the idea of prison privatization.  Legislators, mostly Republican, have thrice attempted (and failed) to privatize half the state’s prison system within the past two years. The former speaker of the house, serving time in prison, is still being investigated by the FBI in part for his role in bringing a private prison to the state and attempting to force the closure of multiple state facilities to populate it. He’s also the target of a federal grand jury investigation for his dealings with the GEO Group.

In the towns of Southwest Ranches and Pembroke Pines, residents have been waging war against CCA and ICE, who want to build a huge immigration detention center there. Upset over the risks of bringing a private prison to town, residents have already faced legal harassment after they have failed to capture the attention or sympathy of their representative, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. The parties are engaged in a struggle over resources, as CCA is attempting to strong-arm the small towns into providing water and sewer services to the prison. Pembroke Pines has already had to shell out more than $120,000 in legal fees to battle a detention center that the federal government seems to be forcing on them.

The most recent battle in Florida has arisen over the state’s plans to privatize health care for all its prisoners, which I guess was the fall-back option if wholesale privatization failed. The plan is being challenged by the Nurses’ Association, which filed a lawsuit similar to the one that successfully defeated the wholesale privatization; basically saying the state Legislature didn’t have the authority to order such a sweeping change to such a huge portion of the state budget without passing a stand-alone bill. It’s estimated that as many as 2,800 jobs and $300 million of the budget could be impacted by the switch, which is also opposed by the union that represents COs.

It seems simple to explain part of this love affair, the GEO Group and CCA have contributed huge sums of money to Florida legislators, with most of that going to Republicans. During the last election cycle, the industry donated nearly $1 million to campaigns, with more than 80% of that coming from the GEO Group. GEO has already given more than $100,000 to Governor Scott for the upcoming election.

But just looking at the campaign contributions fails to reveal the whole story. Governor Scott’s closest advisor and de facto gatekeeper, Steve McNamara, is a man with so much political influence he’s been called the state’s “Shadow Governor.”  He also happens to be close personal friends with Jim Eaton, head lobbyist for the GEO Group, which might help explain why Scott decided to can the head of the Department of Corrections for challenging the privatization scheme. After news came out that McNamara had been using his influence to advance himself and his friends politically and financially, he was forced to resign. Jim Eaton, by the way, also happens to be the head lobbyist for Wexford, one of the companies in the running for the state healthcare contract.  So McNamara’s influence is likely to last well beyond his tenure as “Shadow Governor.”