State announces prison closures

Jan 13, 2012

In a budget saving effort, 11 correctional facilities in Florida are expected to close. But, as Sascha Cordner reports, while some say the move is unavoidable, others say it will hurt hundreds of correctional officers who will lose their jobs and the communities that depend on them.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker says Governor Rick Scott tasked him with finding a way to reduce the overall cost of the state’s corrections’ budget.

Due to a decline of prisoners entering the system, the state was left with thousands of empty prison beds. Tucker says that’s why he made the tough choice of shutting down seven prisons and four work camps, which could save about $75 million . 

“It’s a good news/bad news issue. The good is crime is down, prison admissions are down, and fewer people are entering into the system. The bad news is that it’s going to impact the lives of many employees of the Department of Corrections and many others outside of the Department of Corrections: contractual vendors, medical staff, maintenance staff, kitchen staff, and the correctional officers and their families.”

Tucker says he and his staff are doing everything they can to make sure they can relocate and find other jobs for correctional officers and employees.

Republican Senator Mike Fasano of New Port Richey is the Chairman of the Senate Committee for Budget Appropriations on Criminal and Civil issues. He says the state’s corrections department is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do and that is to close prisons that are no longer needed or have become too expensive.

“The prisons that they’re looking to close of course are the older prisons that cost more money to keep running, especially when you deal with per diem, per day expenses for each prisoner. And, if those expenses are too costly and we have open beds in other parts of the state, then we need to transport those prisoners into those open beds, close down more expensive outdated older prisons that are costly to the taxpayers of Florida.”

But, Democratic Representative Alan Williams of Tallahassee disagrees.

He represents one of the counties that will be impacted by the closure: Jefferson County. Shutting down Jefferson County correctional institution is expected to save the state the second largest amount of money, 10-million dollars, compared to the other prisons slated to shut down. But, Williams says shutting down prisons in smaller counties, like Jefferson, will hurt the community as a whole:

Our smaller more rural counties welcome these facilities and now the Governor has decided less than a year on the job that we’re going to start closing down facilities that have been the lifeblood and in a lot of cases, the main employer for a lot of these communities and I think that it’s a decision that…he didn’t consult any of us, he didn’t consult members within those communities that we represent. We don’t have all the answers, but we definitely know our communities a lot better than the Governor knows the state of Florida.”

Matt Puckett feels the same about the economic impact this will have on communities across the state. He is the Executive Director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a group that represents thousands of state correctional officers.

“This is the Governor basically issuing pink slips to 13-hundred folks. No, yeah, they can move around, but it’s going to hurt those local economies. If a group of correctional officers leave Jefferson CI (Correctional Institutions) and move to Taylor CI or Wakulla CI, that’s still money in Jefferson County that’s being taken away, so that’s still affecting the local economy. That’s still not producing jobs in a place where a job existed.”          

Puckett also says he’s not sure laying off about 13-hundred state prison employees was the department’s only option.

“It’s disappointing that only state facilities were being targeted, we have seven privately operated facilities. I don’t know what type of analysis was being done, but I think it should be considered.”

And, the association’s rival, the Teamsters Union had the same question. Teamsters recently won a bid to represent correctional officers as their collective bargaining agent. The union’s Division Director Michael Filler says he met with Department of Corrections staff Friday:

“And, when I asked that question of when you did your analysis, whether or not you also analyzed the privatized prisons, I was told well, that’s not in our department, that’s a different department. So, we’re going to try and purse that, and find out if this other Department, the Department of Management Services, is also evaluating these privatized prisons, because if you’re going to be assessing the public ones, then you should be assessing the private ones.”

Filler says they are also urging the Legislature to hold hearings on the proposal to close the prisons and the work camps, because of what it would do the officers and their families.

Shutting down New River Correctional institution in Raiford is expected to save the state the most money at about $17 million. Other correctional institutions also expected to close include Gainesville, Indian River in Vero Beach, and the women’s prisons of Broward and Hillsborough.

 

In other prison budget news, the prison privatization issue is back in action, and this time there’s a bill. The Senate Rules Committee filed the legislation Friday that would allow the Department of Corrections to privatize about 30 state prisons in the South Florida region, an issue that’s currently embroiled in a lawsuit. The proposal is expected to be taken up by the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday.