Prison privatization bills rile lawmakers for and against it

Jan 23, 2012

A massive prison privatization effort is causing quite a stir among Florida lawmakers. That’s due to a move by Senate President Mike Haridopolos to vet a pair of prison privatization bills through two committees that are not prison-related. As Sascha Cordner reports, the bills now move on to one last committee stop, despite objection from some who feel the process is a sham.

The prison privatization bills are one that would privatize about 30 South Florida prisons, and another that allows any state agency to sign a contract with a private vendor, without providing any analysis on the effects of the privatization effort.

Both Bill have the strong backing of Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos. Last week, he sent a memo, saying he thought the measures had gotten plenty of legislative scrutiny last year. Still, he was willing to, in his words “proceed with an abundance of caution” and refer the bills to two committees for more consideration this year.

The Senate Rules Committee is chaired by Republican Senator John Thrasher, whose committee originally filed the bills. The Senate budget Committee is headed by J.D. Alexander, also a strong prison privatization backer.

However, not everyone likes where all this seems to be headed:

“It should have gone to at least two, probably three committees through the process, like all of the bills filed during session go through.”

Republican Senator Mike Fasano is the head of the Senate committee that oversees the Criminal Justice Committee. He had actually sent a letter to Senate President Mike Haridopolos before the memo was issued to make sure the bills were vetted through the proper committees, like his own. He says what the Florida Senate is doing now is just plain wrong:

“Extremely disappointed as I believe some other members are…this is a way unfortunately that leadership is circumventing their own rules. You know the Senate is a unique place, the Florida Senate, where we follow procedure and we follow policy and to all of a sudden, change the rules in the middle of the game, I think gives a bad mark and black mark on the Senate right now.”

There were still other lawmakers, like Republican Senator Dennis Jones, who had reservations as well and is a member of Monday's Senate Rules Committee.

“I haven’t heard anything in this testimony today that assure me that we would not be reducing the level of competency of public safety, and from that standpoint, I’m not willing to try and balance the state budget on the backs of law enforcement and public safety at this time.”

His thoughts came after hearing hours of public testimony of those in opposition to privatizing the South Florida region, including Correctional officer at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, Brett Pruitt:

"What we’ve got to remember is correction is a law enforcement functions and once you start privatizing law enforcement functions, you open the door to everything else, and I always ask, what’s next is Wal-Mart going to be writing us traffic tickets?”

Also there was Former state Senator Ron Silver, an attorney with the Teamsters Union, which represents thousands of correctional officers. He says there’s nothing that shows that how the state prisons are run now is not working, so he does not understand this sudden push to privatize:

"When you privatize these prisons, there’s no assurance that you’re going to have the same safety standards as you have right now. So, that’s why, I don’t think this is a good bill and the savings that they say they might be able to save is questionable. Some reports say yes, there is savings,  some of them say no….and it’s all how you determinate it. So, what are we doing? I don’t understand it? Because when I was in the legislature for 24 years, we never had anything that we’re seeing here today.”

Someone who also felt the same way is Matt Puckett, the Executive Director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. That’s the group that sued to block the prison privatization plan last year. The association had won the challenge by a judge who said the Legislature could not put a provision into the budget to privatize prisons without a bill, but the matter is now under appeal. Still, that did not stop the Senate from filing the bills, which Puckett says is typical of this chamber:

“There’s an independent streak in that Senate and I think if we look at it on face value, again, we’re asking taxpayers to forget everything we did six years ago and we’re going to allow the Legislature to privatize however they want and prove it afterwards and we’re using faulty numbers to outsource 18 counties worth of correctional facilities.”

Still, chairman of the Rules Committee Senator John Thrasher defended the Senate’s position:

“And for anybody who suggests that there’s a bunch of secrecy going on and that these bills are not being heard appropriately, I challenge that, I challenge that.”

And, Senate Budget Chief J.D. Alexander says going ahead with prison privatization is a must for the state:

“I think this holds the possibility of saving from $22 to $45-million  annually. These are real dollars and these are difficult decisions and I don’t that they are easy, but if we don’t save them here, then those are dollars that we don’t have to meet the other needs of our state from our K-12 system to our folks with disabilities to foster kids and etc.”

The Senate Rules committee voted both measures favorably and they now move on to the Senate Budget Committee, and will be taken up on Wednesday. The House Justice Appropriations recently filed its own prison privatization bill that differs a little from the Senate proposal. It would privatize the same correctional facilities in the South Florida region, with the exception of one. It also has a stipulation that correctional employees affected by the prison privatization effort must be given first preference for employment by the private prison management company.