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Lawmakers debate prison privatization on Senate floor

Group protests prison privatization plan
Group protests prison privatization plan

The question as to whether to privatize about 30 South Florida prisons took center stage in and outside the Florida Senate Tuesday. As Sascha Cordner reports, in a last ditch effort to stall the effort, several Democrats, Republicans, and state employees joined together to talk about the overall impact the move will have on the state.

“Our Government is not for sale and neither are our prisoners for sale. We all stand together.”

Just before the Senate met, Democratic Senator Maria Sachs of Delray Beach got a crowd of correctional officers, teachers, and sheriff’s deputies fired up as she vowed that she would fight the massive prison privatization effort:

“The Corrections’ officers put their lives and their safety on the line to protect the prisoners and also the safety of our people. And, we sell this out to the highest bidder? As long we have citizens who hear about this and know that we want to sell our prisons and our prisoners to the highest bidder, you can count me out! You can count the people of Palm Beach County out! We will never go along with privatization our prisons.”

Prison privatization proponents say privatizing the prisons in South Florida could save the state between$22 and $45 million. And, that savings would go towards areas, like education.

But, K-T Caldwell, a Math teacher in Seminole County, says prison privatization should not go forward. She says if it does, she’s afraid it would set a dangerous precedent:

“It seems like the Florida Legislature is back to its old tricks. SB 2038 is being rushed through by Governor Rick Scott and extremists in the Legislature in an attempt to trample on every Floridians right to participate on our democracy. It’s a democracy that’s for the people and by the people. As we privatize industry and prisons, schools are next.”

While on the Senate Floor, questions over Senate Bill 2038 turned into more of a grilling session from lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, alike. Their questions were reserved for Senate Budget Chief JD Alexander and Republican Senator John Thrasher, the two Chairmen who saw the bill in their committees. They are both proponents of prison privatization.

Republican Senator Mike Fasano, who’s against the effort, asked for specifics on how much the state is expected to save:

“What is the savings? What 17, 18 million dollars, maybe less than that? And, then you take out the payouts that we’re going to have to make to the correctional officers that don’t stay in the state system, we as the taxpayers could actually lose money, if this privatization goes into effect.”

Throughout the Senate Session, both Thrasher and Alexander maintained there would be a savings to the state. Thrasher says the payouts that Fasano was talking about is a one-time deal and the savings overall would be recurring, which would be to the benefit of taxpayers:

I don’t know what $18 million translates into in terms of the number of teachers we could hire or other types of folks, Senator Fasano, but I’ve got to believe $18 million recurring over a long period of time is going to add up to a lot of savings among the taxpayers and the seven-percent that people keep forgetting about, that is a required savings.”

Later, the bill was changed to disallow the privatization of executions or the death penalty. About half of the amendments filed were adopted, but Senator Fasano’s amendments were pushed over to Wednesday’s floor session, where a vote is expected.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.