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Judge says prison privatization is unconstitutional

By Sascha Cordner

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-988405.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – A Leon County circuit judge has decided the way the Legislature put a provision into the budget to privatize about 30 South Florida prisons is unconstitutional. As Sascha Cordner reports, Judge Jackie Fulford ruled in favor of a prison guards' union in their fight to stop the privatization plan from moving forward.

"It's over! The bidding process is stopped in its tracks."

Florida Police Benevolent Association Executive Director Matt Puckett declared victory, a few hours after he heard Judge Jackie Fulford's ruling, with her declaring the legislature's plan for privatizing prisons in South Florida is unconstitutional.

Before her decision Friday morning, she listened to arguments from both the Florida Police Benevolent Association and the lawyer representing the Legislature's decision on Thursday.

Steve Turner, a lawyer for the union, argued the Legislature had no right to slip in language into the budget to privatize prisons, without going through the appropriate legislative process.

"Use of a proviso to privatize government is not the correct way to go. That's not the way you do it! You pass a bill, You give Senator Fasano, you give Senator Oelrich, you give all these Senators who were against this a chance to be heard."

Turner also said the Department of Corrections should have had a say. Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Glogau, representing the state, disagreed. He maintained the Legislature has the authority to spend the state money in the manner it wanted.

"It's not the Department that gets to make this decision, it's always the Legislature. The Legislature tells people what to do and they have authorized that this be done."

But, according to Judge Jackie Fulford's ruling, the Legislature should have passed a separate law, if they had wanted to privatize the South Florida prisons.

For now, Florida Department of Corrections Spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger says they have already put the bidding process on hold:

"The Department is reviewing the order and we have suspended the procurement. So, there will be bid opening on Tuesday."

Plessinger says only the bidding process for the prison privatization is on hold. She says Judge Fulford's ruling does not apply to the bids for the privatization of health care services for inmates. Still, the union's executive director Matt Puckett says this is a big win for the correctional officers:

"It's a validation to our argument. We anticipated this ruling going the way it did. We re obviously delighted by it. It takes a burden off of about 4,000 officers in South Florida who were about to uproot their families and have to make some very serious career decisions. This kind of puts that in place for awhile, and they can breathe a sigh of relief."

Though the plan was blamed on the Legislature, not all lawmakers were in favor of the last minute provision placed in the budget. Republican Senator Mike Fasano of New Port Richey says he was extremely pleased with Judge Jackie Fulford's ruling because of the message it sends:

"The judge clearly found that what the Legislature did was unconstitutional. It was in violation of even the Legislature's policy if you will. And, I was extremely pleased for the hardworking Correctional officers that put their lives on their line every day knowing they're not going to lose their jobs. And, that they will continue to provide public safety in the public arena, not in a private prison. I'm just thankful that the little guy and gal won one for a change and congratulations to them."

Meanwhile, an ethics complaint filed by another union called Teamsters is moving forward to stop the privatization of prisons as well. The Florida Ethics Commission is expected to start investigating whether or not Governor Rick Scott had any conflict of interests. That includes campaign contributions from two major private prison management companies.

And, before the Judge's decision, the Governor also tried to prevent former Corrections Secretary Ed Buss from testifying in a deposition for the Florida Police Benevolent Association's lawsuit. Though his attempts were unsuccessful, Scott claimed it would set a bad precedent for agency heads, who would now be continually asked to testify in depositions.

And, Spokesman for the Governor's Office Lane Wright says they were also not happy with Judge Fulford's decision:

"What I can tell you is that yes, we do disagree with the Judge's ruling and we are going to be looking at our options going forward."

Those options may include an appeal from the state towards the judge's ruling.