Prison privatization takes center stage

Jan 20, 2012

To privatize or not to privatize, that’s the question up for discussion in the Florida Legislature this week.  And it will continue in the coming weeks. The Senate has already filed a couple of bills, and as Sascha Cordner reports, a House Budget committee is now looking into the feasibility of the massive prison privatization effort.

Republican Representative Denise Grimsley, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, set the tone of the meeting, calling it a “Budget Workshop on Outsourcing State prisons.” She says the meeting was strictly a question and answer session about the potential to privatize South Florida prisons, nothing more:

“I want to be clear about what we’re doing today. It is not a discussion about prison consolidation nor is it a discussion of the mechanism or vehicle of any outsourcing. Since all of us may not be familiar with correctional issues, and particularly correctional privatization, I thought we would have some presentations to describe this issue. Today’s presentation will not revisit what occurred last year or discuss the ongoing litigation.”

But, the presentation got off to a rocky start as a Department of Corrections official presented figures from last year’s data, which included correctional facilities that are expected to close later this year.

“Won’t they give us false numbers? Shouldn’t we be looking at where we are today because those facilities are now closed?”

Mark Talent, with the department’s Budget office tried to justify his findings to Democratic Representative Martin Kiar of Davie:

“The fiscal year 10-11 per diems are used because it’s the last published per diems the department has. If the privatization effort goes forward, we would take these numbers as a base. We would use adjustments to the 11-12 appropriation, the retirement adjustment, and other things that have happened to adjust this number, but it’s the last published number we have to go by because we haven’t closed the 11-12 year.”

But, Kiar still wasn’t on board. He says having false numbers won’t help lawmakers make the correct budget decision:

“If we make a decision based on 2010-2011 numbers, then our decision could be potentially disastrous because those numbers are based on every one of the facilities including the Broward ones and others, which were pretty costly. So, I think that we should not make a decision based on those numbers and I actually think even projections are more credible than utilizing a 2010-2011 per diem number.”

The matter of cost was still a discussion on lawmakers’ minds, including Republican Representative Marti Coley of Marianna. She says she wants to make sure the panel does their homework on prison privatization because realizing they made a mistake after the fact would be devastating:

“Last week, when the Governor’s proposal was set forth, there was a brief discussion that the food services had been privatized and then hindsight, they discovered that really it was not cost effective, they reverted back [because] we as a state could do it cheaper and better. So, as we are moving forward, we are looking carefully that we really can do it cheaper and better.”

Opponents of prison privatization have said that private prisons are not providing much of the required 7-percent cost savings at all because they are moving sicker, more expensive inmates out of private prison facilities and shifting the burden onto the state.

Republican Representative Paige Kreegel of Punta Gorda says he’s also heard that from correctional officers in his district who work at Charlotte Correctional Institution:

“I guess the insinuation here is that they are filling up the prison to be privatized with people who are relatively inexpensive to take care of and maintain and shipping the expensive prisoners to the northern region, which would still be maintained by the state. And, the insinuation would be that any real cost savings that are projected here are not based on efficiencies in operation, but kind of bureaucratic slight of hand.”

Though he didn’t say that such things have not occurred, a Corrections official at the department answered that such moves would be determined by the contract with a private prison management company.

Meanwhile, three prison private vendors made their plea to lawmakers. That includes, GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, and Management and Training Corporation, or MTC. All of these companies already operate seven private prisons in Florida.

Making his pitch to the House committee, Tony Grande with CCA says if the Legislature and the Governor allow the private vendors to operate the South Florida prisons, they will come up with innovative solutions that will help Florida:

“CCA does not hold the license on great ideas, as much as it’s hard to admit, the folks at Geo and MTC are pretty darn smart too. When you give us the opportunity to compete against each other, you’re likely to get a solution that’s innovative, it’s an economic development solution, it brings highest quality services to the inmate, and most importantly, the best value to the taxpayer.”

Still, other members on the panel, both Democrat and Republicans alike, had reservations about the prison privatization effort. But, at the panel’s end, Republican Representative Chris Dorworth of Heathrow says he feels confident that after listening to the presentations, that prison privatization may be a step in the right direction:

“It’s obvious that we have a history of working with private prisons in Florida, it’s nothing new, and it seems to me what’s new here is just the sheer depth and magnitude of the potential undertaking. Having said that we know from our experience, that savings can be achieved, and from what I’ve heard today, it can happen without the sacrifice of what is most important, and that is most certainly public safety. I also want to make sure that we need to accommodate employees as much as possible to ensure they have an opportunity with the private prison. It’s just important that we make that a prime focus because it is important that we don’t debilitate certain towns or regions that have that impact.”

A Senate panel has already filed a pair of bills that would allow the state to privatize about 30 state prison facilities in Florida. The Senate Rules Committee is scheduled to take up the issue Monday, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos recently released a memo saying it will go to the Budget Committee on Wednesday.