Florida, which oversees the third-largest U.S. prison population, would have more inmates in private lockups than any other state under a plan that a divided Senate will consider today.
The bill, which would put up for bids the operation of 27 prisons and work camps, is intended to save $16.5 million a year by increasing the number of inmates in private prisons to more than 25,000, about a quarter of those behind bars. Florida spends $268 million running the facilities, according to a Senate analysis.
While the proposal is supported by Governor Rick Scott, whose fellow Republicans control 28 of the chamber’s 40 votes, its passage is not certain.
“We’re struggling with all sorts of issues,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman J.D. Alexander, a Republican who supports the change, told fellow lawmakers yesterday. “Here we have an opportunity, I think a responsibility, to look very hard at this issue and see if there is a way we can save money.”
As Florida and 28 other states close shortfalls totaling $44 billion this year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more look to sell assets or outsource traditional responsibilities. Since 2005, the number of state prisoners in private lockups has increased 16.7 percent, while the total prison population increased 4.1 percent in the same period, according to U.S. Justice Department data.
Taking the Lead
Florida’s 104,306 prisoners trail only California’s 165,062 and Texas’s 173,649, according to the Justice Department.
Texas has about 15,000 prisoners in privately run prisons, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Department. That’s more than any other state, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
The Florida proposal would move 14,500 inmates into private facilities. Boca Raton-based Geo Group Inc., which already runs two Florida lockups, has expressed interest.
“This is the largest single contract procurement in the history of our industry,” Geo Chief Executive Officer George Zoley said, according to a transcript of an Aug. 3 conference call with investors. “We’ve taken what we believe are important steps to put our company in a competitive position to pursue this unprecedented opportunity.”
Nashville, Tennessee-based Corrections Corp. of America Inc. already runs four of Florida’s prisons and its lobbyists have attended Senate sessions on the bill.
“Should the state expand public-private partnership in corrections, we would welcome the opportunity to further meet Florida’s needs,” Steve Owen, a CCA spokesman, said by e-mail.
CCA and Geo are the two largest private-prison contractors in the U.S.
Under the plan, the state would seek bids for a contract as long as five years to operate and maintain the prison facilities and require at least a 7 percent savings in the first year.
Opponents, including Republican Senators Mike Fasano and Jack Latvala, criticized the deal’s size, saying it would jeopardize jobs for 3,800 prison workers. The state eliminated the positions of 4,500 public workers in its 2011 budget and Scott has suggested cutting another 4,500 this year, including 1,700 prison employees.
“The public has more trust in state workers running our prisons safely then they do the public sector,” Republican Senator Dennis Jones said. “They haven’t had a raise in six years and this is one more jab in the eye.”
Out They Go
Scott in August replaced his first prison chief, Edwin Boss, who opposed the private-prison plan. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who supports the bill, said he removed Fasano as chairman of the Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations on Feb. 1 because of Fasano’s opposition to the deal.
Fasano said the measure favors some private vendors. He and other opponents pointed to a report from the state Corrections Department, under Buss, that showed it would cost the state $25 million to pay out vacation, sick leave and other benefits to 3,800 prison workers if they lost their jobs.
Supporters, meanwhile, said the estimated $16.5 million savings was low. Alexander said the savings might be as much as $30 million.
“That buys a lot of teachers for the classroom,” said Senator Don Gaetz.
Scott, who campaigned on cutting $1 billion out of the $2.4 billion Florida Corrections Department budget, summoned opponents to his office earlier this month in a bid to change their minds. Two Republican senators, Charlie Dean and Steve Oelrich, both former sheriffs, said they were unpersuaded.
“There’s some things we ought to do and taking custody and control of the people we imprison is one of them,” Oelrich told the Tampa Bay Times.
Scott told reporters Jan. 31 he thought private companies may save the state more than 7 percent.
“People expect us to spend their money well,” Scott said. “If we do prison privatization, it’s going to save the state money and we’ll do it the right way.”