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A Glimpse Inside the Private Prison Industry’s Influence in Florida

10:37 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

President of the Florida Senate, Mike Haridopolous

First published on WhyIHateCCA

Florida’s leadership is among the most aggressive in the nation in trying to bring private prisons to the state.  The governor, speaker of the house, former speaker of the house, and a host of Republicans in the legislature repeatedly attempted to force through what would have been the largest wholesale privatization of prisons in US history.  Though those measures failed, a battle is still being waged in court over the abuse of the political process by Republicans who tried to force the privatization by putting it into the budget and bypassing the committee that would have normally reviewed it.  The state is now also moving forward with plans to privatize 20 work release centers of the 21 that are still operated by the state, possibly because Governor Scott seems downright determined to put state employees out of work.  Lest you think I’m being unfair, a DOC spokeswoman said the state wasn’t likely to save any money in the process, which would have theoretically been the only justifiable reason to do so.

The industry has fared rather well in the state despite the failure to pass the wholesale privatization, but not quite as well as it has with the federal government in taking responsibility for incarcerating immigration detainees.

The GEO Group has been particularly successful in both these arenas, due in large part to the amount of influence it peddles throughout governments.  This influence was apparent during the 2010 election cycle, when the company donated more than $800,000 to campaigns in Florida.  But what’s not quite as easy to see is how these companies also gain political influence by having favorable people, and sometimes previous employees, placed in positions of power.  Take for example the chief of staff to young Republican superstar Marco Rubio, Cesar Conda.  Conda still maintains ties to a powerful lobbying firm in Florida that has lobbied for the GEO Group.  In fact, he still maintains partial ownership, and was paid between $50,000-$100,000 by the firm after he became Rubio’s chief of staff..  So he’s still being paid by companies like the GEO Group while working as the number-one guy to a US Senator.

So the GEO Group has revenues of nearly $2 billion per year, much of which comes from the federal government as payment for detaining immigrants.  It has spent more than $5 million in lobbying and political contributions in the past 8 years, a small fraction of their overall revenue, and in doing so has greatly expanded its role in the immigration detention system.  They also now have a paid lobbyist working in the office of a Republican Senator at the forefront of the immigration debate, in a state with major immigration issues.

In the state legislature meanwhile, President of the Senate Mike Haridopolous, one of the biggest proponents of the aforementioned failed privatization measure, has a really cozy relationship with a lobbyist as well.  He steered millions of dollars to a company that monitors juveniles for the state, after it had come to light that the company had failed to meet many of the terms of its contract.  But he went a step further – he removed the competitive bidding process as a last-minute budget move (sounds familiar…), assuring the company, which employes his close friend as a lobbyist, would maintain the contract.  The secretary of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice even wrote that “the use of this exemption from competitive procurement may not be in the best interest of the state.”

Florida’s Love Affair With Private Prisons

7:56 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

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.”

Is the Private Prison Industry Losing a Lifeline?

8:07 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

First published on WhyIHateCCA

California, the state with the highest prison population, has also historically been one of the most privatization-friendly states, despite the influence of the powerful corrections officers lobby.  The state has given hundreds of millions of dollars per year to the industry to house some of its prisoners in a vain attempt to reduce the burden of its overcrowded prison system, rewarding the industry’s investment in campaign contributions and lobbying.  But the industry’s hold on the nation’s most desperate prison system seems to be slipping in the wake of the Brown v. Plata decision from the Supreme Court.

A guard tower by a prison fence in California.

California Guard Tower. Photo by Rennett Stowe.

That decision basically held that the state needed to remove about 40-45,000 prisoners from its state system just to ease overcrowding to the point where it could provide medical care that would not be so insufficient as to violate the prisoners’ right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.  At the height of the overcrowding, it was estimated that one prisoner died every week from a preventable cause, because the state simply didn’t have the resources or manpower to treat all the people it decided to lock up (coincidentally enough, its prison population exploded due largely to sentencing initiatives like 3-Strikes and Truth in Sentencing laws, which were passed by the industry through its work in ALEC during the 90′s.  But that’s a topic for a whole different post).  The governor’s plan to fix the overcrowding is to send thousands of state prisoners to county jails; basically, he’s shifting responsibility for the state’s overzealous criminalization of nonviolent activities onto counties, many of which are poorly equipped to handle an influx of new prisoners.

In addition to shifting prisoners to county facilities, the Secretary of Corrections announced a few months ago that the state was looking at ways to reduce its reliance on private prisons and stop shipping prisoners to private facilities in other states. It looks like the state has actually started to work towards this goal; a few weeks ago, it announced a plan to halt $4 billion in new prison construction and return nearly 10,000 state prisoners from private facilities in other states.  This plan would save the state almost $400 million per year that it spends on private prisons, and reduce the prison system’s impact on the state budget by nearly 4%; in a state with a budget near $137 billion, that’s an awful lot of money.

FL Republicans Just Won’t Quit in Privatization Scheme

8:10 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

FL Republicans Just Won’t Quit

I’ll spare you a long recap of all the turmoil that keeps arising in Florida as Republicans try to repay the private prison industry for its generous campaign contributions (nearly $1 million in the 2010 cycle alone) by trying to force through the largest, most expansive prison privatization scheme in human history.

Long story short, they tried to force it through as a budget amendment last year, which the state supreme court ruled unconstitutional.  The head of the DOC lost his job for opposing that measure, because hey, who’s the head of the department of corrections to say that privatizing half the system is a bad idea?  After that shady deal failed, they tried to pass it through the legislature, but that plan was shot down by a group of legislators that hadn’t been bought off by the industry.  A state senator lost his chairmanship of a committee for opposing that measure.  So you would think that this would probably be an indication to the pro-privatization lobby in the legislature that turning over control of 24 or so prisons maybe isn’t in the best interest of Floridians, and that they should just stop.  Either that or all the evidence that came out showing the state hasn’t saved money from its past experiences with privatization, and that it would be on the hook for $25 million owed to state employees who would lose their jobs if the plan went through.

But no; privatization proponents know no bounds.  They tried to, once again, insert the privatization as a last-minute budget amendment.  That’s the same action that totally rubbed many people the wrong way, that had previously been ruled unconstitutional by the court. Thankfully, this measure was thwarted by some of the same politicians who have stood firm against the overwhelming influence of the industry, including Paula Dockery, who called the move “abhorrent.”  Which is a far nicer term than I would have used.

Prison Privatization Fails in Florida, Again

1:08 pm in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

Privatization Fails in Florida, Again

For the second year in a row, legislation that would have resulted in a massive overhaul of Florida’s prison system (CorruptionFest 2012) has been defeated.  The bill would have privatized half the state’s corrections system, basically everything south of Orlando; 27 facilities and thousands of state employees would have been affected.  This is a great victory in the fight against for-profit corrections that would not have been possible without the work of many socially conscious groups and politicians who fought to prevent the state from contracting away its responsibility to manage the prison system it overpopulated.

Among the groups who came out in opposition to the measure were a coalition of faith-based organizations, the NAACP, and the tea party, who refused to buy the bogus claims that private prisons save money.  They were up against stiff opposition in the form of a few Republicans who stretched the truth about the potential savings and sullied the political process by trying to force through the unpopular measure, which only really drew support from people and groups who have received funding from the industry.

Instead of trying to hand over half its correctional system, the state should look to reduce its prison population as a smart and safe way to save money. Florida, like many other states and the federal government, has difficulty managing its prison population because far more people are in its prisons than necessary.  Simply privatizing half the system would have hardly saved 1% of the correction budget and turned over responsibility for tens of thousands of prisoners to an industry that consistently fails to treat its ward with basic human decency.

That’s probably a big reason why opposition to the plan was bipartisan, at least among those not purchased by the millions of dollars the industry spent in donations leading up to the vote. The industry not only lost out on the millions in donations they’ve spent in recent years; the GEO Group had invested nearly $650,000 in lobbyists to try to get the legislation passed.  That would be mostly taxpayer dollars, spent trying to influence the legislature to embark on this foolish mission.

I’m more than certain that we haven’t seen the last of the industry’s efforts to acquire half the state’s prison system; in fact, Governor Scott can utilize mechanisms to privatize a few prisons without going through the legislature.  The state already has 7 private prisons, and the industry is not likely to stop spending oodles of money to try to force its way in.  But for now, Floridians can breathe a collective sigh of relief in knowing that, despite the efforts of some crooked and corrupt politicians, their legislature apparently does try to represent their best interests.  At least most of it does, anyway.

Florida’s Private Prisons CorruptionFest 2012

2:43 pm in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

(photo: jeffreyputman, flickr)

(photo: jeffreyputman, flickr)

Florida’s Private Prisons CorruptionFest 2012!

I’ll spare everyone a summary of what’s been happening in the Florida legislature over the past two sessions (see here, here, and here, or just search for “Florida” to catch up); instead, I’ll just try to continue to update what I’d like to call CorruptionFest 2012.  Again, I apologize in advance for the plethora of links to follow, but the news is coming so fast that I can’t keep up any other way.

First comes an article written by a state Senator, Paula Dockery, who calls out her fellow senators for the false promises of savings and the absurd fast-tracking of the bill, which for some reason never found its way to the legislative committee that oversees corrections.  No, it just went before 2 different committees headed up by JD Alexander, who has been pushing this privatization effort for years.  Alexander has been telling anyone who will listen that the plan will save $22 million for the state, but he has never actually backed those numbers up with evidence.

As a reporter with the Orlando Sentinel noted, such “savings” can be particularly hard to calculate, especially given the industry-friendly contract terms that keep the most expensive prisoners in state facilities and leave the privates to handle the cheap, low-risk prisoners.  Many experts who have studied the industry (and who weren’t funded by the industry in their research), have found savings from private prisons to be negligible at best; and considering the state would even leave some of the more high-risk prisoners in private facilities (which is a stupid idea in its own right), Florida’s taxpayers would likely not save much, if anything, in this process.

In response to the fast-tracking of the legislation through committees that should have no say in corrections policy, the Florida Nurses Association has sued the state over the secrecy of the plan that could cost thousands of state employees their jobs.  They were followed by a coalition of 17 other organizations opposed to the privatization, who petitioned the effort’s champion, Mike Haridopolous.  Then the Correctional Officers’ Union called for the state to conduct an honest cost-benefit analysis, after their initial review found that this privatization could cost Florida taxpayers MORE THAN 120 MILLION FRIGGING DOLLARS. Read the rest of this entry →

More on Florida’s Privatization Mess

2:16 pm in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

The Story That Just Won’t Go Away

I don’t want to re-hash everything I’ve written about the absurd privatization push / corporate handout happening in Florida.  You can find plenty of material on it by just looking back.  I want to take a minute though to try to update the situation, again, as well as possible.  So I won’t go into a long rant about anything here, I’ll just give you some quick bullet points.  And just FYI, none of this even deals with the brewing situation in Southwest Ranches, where CCA is forcing an immigration detention center down the throat of a very angry populace. 

  • Florida is also trying to privatize healthcare for its entire prison system (in addition to privatizing half the prisons).  The bidding process has drawn a lot of scrutiny and generated many questions, so much so that the state had to push back the date for the bids to be submitted. It will probably go through though, unfortunately.  In a related story, North Carolina is foolishly looking to do the same thing.
  • The executive director of the union representing COs in the state wrote an excellent opinion piece urging the state Senate to find some other way to save money, considering the questions surrounding the claim that the venture will save $22 million.
  • The editorial board of the Palm Beach Post came out with an excellent piece questioning Gov. Scott’s motives in pushing the privatization, given the $1 million donated by the industry leading up to the last election and questions regarding the proposed cost savings.
  • Also, the state should really consider the company it’s about the get in bed with, as a GEO Group guard appears to have been extremely negligent in permitting a prisoner to commit suicide.
  • Finally, I couldn’t help but link to this absurd example of poor journalism, as the editorial board at the Daytona Beach News-Journal claims privatization offers “Major Savings.”  The argument is based on practically nothing but the long-ago dismissed notion that if private prisons fail to offer savings, they won’t get contracts (they actually just lobby harder and still get them).  The real icing on the cake comes when the author(s) admit that the state previously lost tens of millions of dollars in a privatization venture, but make no mention of how a similar problem could be avoided this time around.  Really, this is one of the absolute dumbest things I’ve ever seen an editorial board write.

       

      Privatization = Government Waste

      8:42 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

      Privatization = Government Waste

      Proponents of privatizing government services (i.e. “conservatives”) love to talk about supposed improvements in efficiency and delivery of services the private sector offers compared to the government.  In reality, attempts to privatize government services, including everything from military service to social security, are nothing more than government welfare for wealthy corporate donors and empowered individuals.  Politicians give contracts to companies and individuals who contribute to their campaigns and causes, not to companies who will perform the services in good faith.  The private prison industry is a shining example of this phenomenon.

      Which brings me to this article.  I’ll let the author speak for herself: “Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have continued to use troubled detention facilities despite documenting flagrant violations of their own detention standards, including poor medical care and mistreatment of detainees.”

      ICE’s own records indicate a litany of areas in which private prison operators have failed to live up to contractual obligations and failed to operate safe, humane facilities.  Yet they continue to get contracts, due in large part to the millions of dollars the industry spends in lobbying and campaign contributions every year.

       

      Why I Hate Florida Today

      7:33 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

      "Rick Scott Head Shot" by Governor Rick Scott on flickr

      "Rick Scott Head Shot" by Governor Rick Scott on flickr

      Why I Hate Florida Today

      Florida is currently in the midst of the biggest prison privatization push in history – the state is looking to privatize 29 correctional facilities, basically the entire bottom half of the state’s prison system.  This comes after the GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, along with other private prison interests, spent record amounts in campaign contributions and lobbying in the last election cycle, so you wouldn’t be alone in thinking this sounds a bit like a handout from Florida’s Republican leadership to wealthy donors. 

      As this move to privatize has developed, a few groups in the community have started to fight back against the outsourcing of an inherently governmental function.   The union that represents Corrections Officers (The PBA) has filed a lawsuit, seeking to block the privatization, and the Teamsters union has filed an ethics complaint against Governor Scottbecause he accepted campaign contributions from the two largest private prison companies in the country, both of which are bidding on the proposed privatization.

      The lawsuit by the PBA has limped its way through the court system.  After a lower court ordered ousted Corrections Secretary Edward Buss (ousted because he, as the EFFING SECRETARY OF CORRECTIONS, thought the plan was a horrible idea) to be deposed in the matter, a higher court affirmed the ruling, only to have Governor “I Love Privatization” Scott appeal.  Well, Scott lost, whining about how state officials are not to be deposed under Florida law (I guess he forgot the part where he forced Buss to resign because Buss disagreed with him). The PBA has had trouble getting information out of the Corrections Department through discovery, which is why Buss was called to testify in the first place.  It appears as though Buss, the aforementioned secretary of corrections, was never really consulted about the push to privatize nearly 30 prisons.  The state seems pretty scared to let Buss testify; the Scott administration has already appealed the ruling numerous times, and isconsidering challenging Buss’ testimony in the Florida Supreme Court.  In fact, his lawyers at one point even let a little Freudian Slip pass, remarking that allowing Buss to testify might do “irreparable harm” to state government. Read the rest of this entry →

      The Mighty Political Influence of the Private Prison Industry

      9:30 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

      The Mighty Political Influence of Private Prisons

      I’m not going to go off on a tangent here; I just want to share with you a link to a fantastic article by Bob Ortega of the Arizona Republic.  Mr. Ortega details the tremendous amounts of influence and leverage the private prison industry has cultivated in both state and federal legislatures over the past few decades through campaign contributions, lobbying, and the revolving door between the industry and government.  The amount of money donated to politicians is staggering, and greatly helps to explain the continued success of the industry in securing contracts despite performing less efficiently than its government counterparts.