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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.”

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 →

Florida’s Politicians (But Not Its Residents) Love Private Prisons

1:58 pm in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (photo: studio08denver/flickr)

Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (photo: studio08denver/flickr)

Florida’s Politicians (But Not Its Residents) Love Private Prisons

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz represents Southwest Ranches, Florida, which has been at the epicenter of a debate over a proposed immigration detention facility.  Residents of the town have consistently demonstrated their opposition to the facility, which they feel was designed and planned without much public knowledge of the proceedings.  Basically, they think they have been fleeced by CCA, who hopes to build the facility on land it already owns, into having a detention center that they fear will lower property values and present a risk to public safety.

Unfortunately, they’ve got a pretty poor representative in Ms. Wasserman, who’s basically taking a “lesser of available evils” approach.  She initially called a town hall meeting to allow residents to voice their opposition and learn more about the project.  After more than 250 people showed up to let CCA and the town council know they didn’t want a private prison, Wasserman, who had called the meeting, decided she would support the project.  She now thinks it’s a good idea and that the town should move forward, saying she thinks “it is going to be far better to have that ICE detention center there than to have any other facility that would have a much more negative impact on residents there.”  Other than a lead paint producing puppy mill, I can’t really imagine what would be worse for a community than a privately operated, for-profit human rights violations incubator.  But there’s no chance she could have been partially swayed by the nearly $20 million CCA has spent lobbying the federal government over the past decade.  Right?

Unfortunately for the residents of Southwest Ranches, Wasserman isn’t alone in ignoring her constituents interests and supporting a company with a long track record of failing to live up to its contracts.  The mayor of Southwest Ranches just basically told his constituents to pound sand, because the deal is done.  CCA owns the land, and has for a decade, so he says there’s really nothing residents can do to stop the construction at this point.  If there’s any saving grace in all of this, it might be found in Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart from Miami, who just sent a letter to ICE to demonstrate his opposition to the proposed detention center.  So there is at least one Congressperson from Florida who hasn’t been bought off by the industry yet. Read the rest of this entry →

Federal Grand Jury Investigation of the GEO Group

12:18 pm in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

Federal Grand Jury Investigation of GEO Group

All the commotion earlier this year over the failed attempt to privatize 29 correctional facilities in the state of Florida sort of overshadowed the seedy history of prison privatization in the state.  You may recall from before that the FBI had launched an investigation into the circumstances that led a few powerful budget committee members to try to force through last-minute amendments to force the privatization of the Blackwater Correctional Facility, a GEO Group prison.  Kind of the same way they tried to force through the 29-facility privatization plan in a last-minute budget amendment (a deal that a court ruled was illegal according to state law).

Now the probe has developed further, with a federal grand jury reviewing evidence of corruption on the part of former Speaker of the Florida House, Ray Sansom and his dealing with the GEO Group leading up to the construction of the prison.  This whole situation is a hot mess that will hopefully reveal the rampant corruption in the state’s politics and encourage future Florida politicians to resist efforts to privatize their prison system.

 

FBI Investigates Blatant Corruption in Florida

1:19 pm in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

FBI Investigates Blatant Corruption in Florida

As I’ve reported on before, the GEO Group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying the Florida legislature over the past few legislative sessions, culminating first in the state’s giving them $110 million to build a prison, then turning over the correctional services of 18 counties to private control in the biggest prison privatization scheme I’ve ever seen. Thankfully, the FBI has launched an investigation into the rampant and blatant corruption that engulfed the Florida legislature surrounding these actions.

Former Budget Chief and Speaker of the House Ray Sansom, who now sits in prison on corruption and fraud charges, is one of the primary targets of the investigation. While he was budget chief, GEO gave a presentation before the legislature on a proposal to expand their services within the state. A month later, Sansom visited the corporate home of the GEO Group, supposedly on “personal business” (though this was the only trip he took there in 4 years as a representative). The month after that, he introduced a very last-minute provision into the budget bill to provide for $110 million to be appropriated to the GEO Group for the construction of what became the Blackwater Correctional Facility.

The prison was built on prison population projections that anticipated the state system would continue to grow; rather, it shrank. But the new budget chief, JD Alexander, tried to come to the rescue of the GEO Group, introducing his own last-minute budget amendment in the 2010 session to try to force the state to depopulate state prisons to send prisoners to the private one. Of course, he had received generous donations from the industry as had Ray Sansom. You just can’t make this stuff up.

Anyhoo, as I said the FBI is currently investigating the circumstances that led the state to give a multiple hundred-million dollar handout to a company with a long track record of human rights abuses and contract noncompliance. And DBA press has just released hundreds of documents obtained through the investigation that chronicle some of this sordid history.

I’m just thankful that our FBI apparently has some shred of decency left