Prison Privatization Plan in Court by Lloyd Dunkelberger

Posted: October 9, 2011 in News and politics

TALLAHASSEE | The largest prison privatization plan in the country heads to a Leon County courtroom today as questions continue to surround a move to turn 29 state prisons, work camps and release centers over to a private company in an 18-county South Florida region.

The financial stakes are high, including a $1.4 billion, five-year contract for the private companies as well as a mandated 7 percent savings to the state for letting a private company run the prisons.

The contract, which could save the state $22 million a year, could be awarded before the end of the year and the prison facilities turned over to a private company by Jan. 1.

But the proposal has generated plenty of controversy, including a lawsuit by the Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the 3,800 state correctional officers who could lose their jobs or be forced to transfer to other facilities.

The lawsuit, which contends that lawmakers overstepped their authority by inserting the private prison proposal into the annual state budget, will be the subject of a daylong hearing today by Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford in Tallahassee.

Critics, including the PBA, charge the far-reaching privatization plan should have had more review and debate in the Legislature. Instead, the proposal was inserted into the budget bill, sidestepping the other committees that normally review legislation impacting prisons.

They also question the projected savings, noting the DOC has provided few details on how the existing costs of the prison facilities will be compared with what the private companies can provide.

And some independent experts have questioned the state’s decision to turn over such a large portion of the prison system — about 16,000 inmates out of system of more than 100,000 — to one private company.

“We’re essentially locked into an all-or-nothing process where Florida taxpayers are not even sure what they are paying for,” said Michael Hallett, chairman of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of North Florida and the author of the 2006 book “Private Prisons in America.”

Hallett, who briefed some lawmakers, DOC staffers and aides to the governor last week, has criticized the move as being too shrouded in secrecy and for not putting more emphasis on requiring the private companies to provide more rehabilitation services for the prisoners.

Hallett also said the proposal is too lenient in the way it holds the private companies accountable for prisoners who end up back behind bars.

The proposal uses the standard of prisoners returning to the system within two years of their release.

Hallett said a tougher standard would have used their rearrest date rather than their incarceration date because it can take an average of 18 months for processing a repeat offender.

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