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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.”

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.

Effing Arizona.

7:17 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

First published on WhyIHateCCA

Sometimes, a story comes along that really makes me wonder whether a lot of politicians just really don’t give a shit about people at all.  And no, I’m not even talking about how North Carolina decided it would be a good idea to codify discrimination in its frigging constitution.  I’m talking about the great state of Arizona, whose political leaders have given up their charade of pretending to represent their constituents.

Now, you might say that’s a bit of hyperbole, but how else can I explain the fact that, faced with evidence from numerous sources, including a government study, that demonstrated private prisons actually cost Arizona taxpayers more than government run facilities, the Arizona legislature decided to not only fund more private prisons, but to eliminate the requirement for the government to report on the efficiency and services it receives from the companies it contracts with to operate these money pits?

The industry is already exempt from public records laws that government agencies must adhere to, a distinction granted because it is comprised of private corporations (despite the fact that they perform an inherently governmental function).  So Arizona actually found what might have been the only way to further reduce transparency and oversight for an industry that’s not required to report much of anything about how it operates.

In addition to removing that reporting requirement, the budget that just passed allocated $16 million for 1,000 new private prison beds, while taking $50 million from funds intended to help struggling homeowners manage their mortgages.  That $16 million might go to MTC, the company that operates the Kingman prison, from which 3 prisoners escaped in 2010 in one of the most highly-publicized prison escapes in years (largely because they murdered an elderly couple).  Or it could go to CCA, the company that, despite all its denials about its influence on the legislation, was in the room when SB1070 was drafted and stands to profit handsomely from it.

In yet another example of the corrupting and toxic influence of money in government, this budget proposal was really the handiwork of Governor Brewer’s Chief of Staff, Chuck Coughlin.  Coughlin founded HighGround Consulting, the most powerful lobbying force in the state.  HighGround happens to represent the private prison industry.  A former CCA lobbyist, married to a current CCA lobbyist, also works on Brewer’s staff.  And John Kavanagh, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is quite cozy with Public Policy Partners, a lobbying firm that represents the GEO Group.  So it naturally made sense for him to be the one to introduce the provision that eliminated the analyses of private prisons in the state.

I don’t even think it’s a question who Governor Brewer and the rest of the Republican establishment in Arizona represent.  And it’s a damn shame.  Thank god I don’t live there.

Arizona’s Political Leaders are Crazy for Private Prisons

1:08 pm in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

Arizona’s Political Leaders Are Crazy for Private Prisons

Arizona

(Photo By tolomea via flickr)

I’ve been remiss in updating everyone on the situation in Arizona, the state that loves private prisons, even though it’s likely paying more for them than what the government could operate facilities for.  After a few reports came out detailing how the state was paying through the nose for private prisons, its legislature continued to bullishly forge ahead with a request for proposals to construct an additional 2,000 private prison beds.  This came despite evidence that private prisons in the state cost more and are more dangerous; the American Friends Service Committee filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent the state from entering into a new contract for these beds.  But it was thrown out on a technicality; the judge basically said that citizens of Arizona have no standing to ask the Department of Corrections to follow the law.

So the AFSC and the NAACP joined together in filing a formal protest asking the court put a stop to the request for proposals, which came alongside a piece of legislation designed to prevent the state from conducting cost comparisons in the future.  The Department of Corrections swiftly dismissed the request, again on a technicality basically amounting to “we don’t want to listen to socially conscious organizations working in the best interest of Arizona citizens.”  The state seems to be quite insistent on these new private prison beds, possibly because its politicians have long had cozy relationships with the industry.  From SB1070, which came out of ALEC, to the governor’s staff consisting of CCA lobbyists, Arizona politicians and the private prison industry are well acquainted.  In fact, Dennis Deconcini, a former senator from the state, sits on CCA’s board.  And it appears as though the state’s Chamber of Commerce is rife with conflicts of interest related to the industry; CCA, the GEO Group, and PHS are all represented on the board of the Chamber, either directly or through lobbying firms.

So it seems like Arizona’s political leaders are really just oblivious to common sense and the advice of groups who have thoroughly studied the problems inherent to the private prison industry.  I want to believe that, rather than the alternative, which would be that they just don’t care about how terrible and inefficient the industry is, because they want to give handouts to their political allies. As Sasha Abramsky at The Nation writes, “One might think that, faced with evidence that the state isn’t getting enough bang for its buck, Arizona legislators would rethink their commitment to putting ever mroe prisoners into private facilities.  Instead, in a move Orwellian even by the gutter standards of Arizona politics, they’ve simply tried to bar the state from collecting the evidence.

With all the news about the state attempting to further privatize its prison system, it might have been easy to overlook the state’s decision to bring in a private, for-profit medical care provider, Wexford, to manage healthcare for the entire system.  Which is just another clusterfuck waiting to happen.  The company will charge more than the state paid last year to provide healthcare this year, and estimates it will reap of profit of more than $5 million in the process.  I’m sure none of that will come from denying treatment or neglecting prisoners.

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 →

We’re All Screwed in the End

11:57 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

(photo: rutty, flickr)

(photo: rutty, flickr)

We’re All Screwed in the End

I often try to figure out ways to convince people that private prisons are not in the best interest of anyone but executives of private prison companies.  There are plenty of others out there like myself, trying to work with elected officials and concerned citizens to convince our legislators that continually giving billions of dollars to an industry whose very survival depends on locking up an ever-increasing segment of our population is morally reprehensible, and bad business to boot. But unfortunately, much of that activism seems for naught, as the anti-privatization movement’s resources and political relationships pale in comparison to the influence built up by the privateers.

Take for example Broderick Johnson, lobbyist extraordinaire who was paid more than $1 million to lobby to get TARP passed on behalf of the major financial institutions that destroyed our economy.  He has also worked for such socially conscious organizations as Talx Corp (which helps employers challenge unemployment claims), Comcast, and the GEO Group.  Mr. Johnson also happens to be a senior adviser to President Obama, whose immigration policies have been, if not an expansion, at least the continuation of the compassionate and sensible policies of his esteemed predecessor.

So Obama’s got a former GEO Group lobbyist working as a senior adviser.  He also appointed a former employee of the GEO Group and CCA, Stacia Hylton, as director of the US Marshal’s Service, a federal agency in control of millions of dollars worth of private prison contracts.  I guess it should come as no surprise that the GEO Group was awarded a contract in excess of $235 million to house immigration detainees, despite decades of evidence proving the company can’t operate a prison efficiently and that it seems incapable of treating its wards with basic human decency.

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 →

They Just Don’t Get It

10:47 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

They Just Don’t Get It

Governor Ric Scott and many republicans in Florida’s legislature have been trying to force the privatization of 29 prisons on the state’s DOC.  This earlier resulted in the forced resignation of the DOC’s director, who was adamantly opposed to the privatization (though he himself had been a champion of privatization before coming to Florida), and a lawsuit by the union representing Florida’s COs to block the proposal.  The union, the PBA, won in its initial lawsuit and Scott’s camp originally said it did not intend to appeal the judge’s decision that the legislature had acted unconstitutionally when it inserted the privatization language into a last-minute budget proviso.

But, being the stand-up guy he is, Governor Scott’s office decided to appeal the ruling at the very last minute.  Then, as if appealing a decision that your blatant corporate handout was unconstitutional wasn’t ballsy enough, Scott’s office re-opened the bidding process for the privatization because they were apparently so confident in their chances to win on appeal.  Thankfully, the PBA stepped in again, requesting that the court stop the bidding process because of the “panic” experienced by state COs who have no idea whether or not they’ll have a job within the next few months.  In fact, corrections officials had promised not to re-open the bidding process.  They should have stuck by their promise, because now the state has been ordered to “Cease and Desist” from all activities related to the proposal and privatization.

Get it through your head, Florida Republicans.  Your thinly-veiled handout to the industry that spent more than a million dollars lobbying you last election is unconstitutional and corrupt.  The plan should have never even made it this far.

CCA’s Revolving Door in Idaho

9:01 am in Uncategorized by WhyIHateCCA

CCA’s Revolving Door Continues to Turn

CCA’s influence in Idaho just got a boost, thanks to the departure of the Governor’s long-time aide to a lobbying firm.  After working for four years as the top aide to Governor Otter, Jason Kreizenbeck is leaving the administration to take a job with one of the largest lobbying firms in the state, led by former Senator Skip Smyser.  Smyser’s firm represents, among other clients, CCA, whose failure to adequately operate the Idaho Correctional Center resulted in a huge lawsuit against the company for violence so pervasive it was called “Gladiator School” by the prisoners housed there.