TALLAHASSEE | From time to time some state agency, or some person at an agency, doesn’t seem to take seriously what someone in the Legislature, maybe a chairman of a committee, wants the agency to do.
Agency officials blow off the concerns of some committee chairmen at their peril.
Opponents of prison privatization have alleged that the drive to ditch more than two dozen state prisons and turn them over to private companies is about favors for the private prison industry, or that it’s about going after unions. Backers of the proposal say neither of those is true – that it’s a simple mathematical equation: privatize prisons, save money in the budget.
But there’s another factor that has at least played a role in the zeal of one senator in particular for privatizing a huge part of the prison system, though it is related to the desire to find savings in the state budget.
Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander’s move to privatize an entire swath of the state prison system is motivated at least a little by the prison agency’s seeming lack of interest in something he’s been trying to get corrections officials to do for two years.
The fight goes back to a little-noticed requirement buried seemingly innocuously in the budget lawmakers passed in 2010.
“From the funds provided in specific appropriations 629 through 721, the Department of Corrections by January 1, 2011 shall implement an electronic time and attendance system in all four regions through a contract ….,” the budget said.
January 1, 2011, came and went, with no such contract.
So the Legislature tried again. In 2011, it put this in the budget: “….the Department of Corrections shall implement an electronic time and attendance system in all regions. The department shall report installation and operational costs and annual cost savings projections related to the implementation of the electronic time and attendance system…”
It still hasn’t happened, and every time Alexander brings up prison privatization, he can’t help but return to the Legislature’s efforts for at least two years to find small amounts of savings – by doing things like going to electronic time keeping in the state’s vast prison system. That seems very simple, he said recently, and yet he hasn’t been able to get the agency to move on it. So, he finally concluded, maybe private vendors could find the savings the department didn’t seem to want to pursue.
“They need to go about doing it,” Alexander said in a recent interview. “It raises concerns about what’s really happening in our prisons.” He has pushed the agency to implement a biometric time system – one that requires a fingerprint or some other unique confirmation of someone’s presence in a particular location. Alexander has used such systems in his agricultural business and found it saved money.
“Lots of businesses in Florida use them to make sure folks are accurately paid,” said Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
The Department of Corrections could easily shift blame – the top brass at the agency has changed twice since the Legislature first asked prisons officials to find a way to more accurately clock time worked. Alexander said the new Corrections Secretary, Ken Tucker, has said he’s working on the time clock issue.
The agency responded to a request for comment by saying it is still working on it – that at first, no good vendors could be found.
“The Department of Corrections has issued a competitive solicitation to find a vendor for a biometric time system,” the agency said in a written response. “The bids are due February 14, 2012. Previously, when this request was put out, all bidders were deemed non-responsive. The procurement has since been modified to enhance competition.”
On more than one occasion Alexander has said it is great that the state prisons agency now seems interested in cutting costs, and will have bids on the system next week – but wishes they’d been more responsive initially.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos echoed that sentiment in a recent interview. The privatization proposal calls for the private companies to save the state 7 percent if they want to keep a contract to house prisoners.
“Now (the state DOC is) coming to us saying they can do it for 7 percent less,” said Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, another major backer of the privatization. “They have proven not to be responsive. We’re going to give someone else a chance.”
An official with Geo, one of the largest private prison operators and one of the companies that is lined up to bid to operate the large bundle of prisons the Senate leadership now wants to privatize, said all that company’s facilities use biometric time systems. The company says they not only save money, but help track whether employees were where they said they were if some accusation of wrongdoing comes up.
Complaints about how corrections officers are paid goes back several years to a dispute between the state and the officers’ then-union, the Police Benevolent Association, over whether guards should be paid from the time they arrive at a prison or from the time they’re actually inside at their post. The union went to court because officers had to arrive early to go through security – where they often stood in line – and for pre-shift briefings that they weren’t being paid for. The U.S. Supreme Court has since said states don’t have to pay officers for that time.
Alexander says it doesn’t matter as much when they clock in, only that it is recorded electronically, and biometrically.
The prison privatization push started out looking like it was likely to pass the Senate for sure, and had a good shot in the House. Now, however, several senators have come out against the measure, and Haridopolos has pulled the bill from the floor while he tries to persuade reluctant senators that privatizing prisons in 18 counties to save money is a good idea. He said last week he plans to hold an up or down vote at some point, and will continue to push senators to support it in the meantime.
He said he isn’t working it by threatening – he’s trying to convince those who disagree with him that he’s right.
“I don’t want to just win the vote, I want to win the debate,” Haridopolos said, acknowledging the vote count on the issue right now is “super close.”
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