Bill Cotterell: Prison issues are far from settled

Posted: March 9, 2012 in News and politics

Legislators and officials of the Florida Department of Corrections have talked a lot about the policy decisions involved in running prisons.

Those discussions will continue in the two weeks remaining of the 2012 legislative session, during House-Senate budget negotiations. One subject that’s off the table is the plan for privatizing more than two-dozen prison facilities in an 18-county swath of South Florida.

A fast-track bill to do by statute what Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford stopped lawmakers from doing in budget-proviso language ran off the tracks in a 21-19 Senate vote about 10 days ago. In finishing up their version of the budget last week, some senators made a point of getting it on the record that — whatever other compromises come out of the budget negotiations — saving about $16.4 million by contracting out for operation of those prisons won’t be one of them.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale, who took over the law-and-order budget committee when Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey was sacked for fighting privatization too well, promised that we’ve seen the last of it for this session. But she added that she can’t speak for Gov. Rick Scott, a privatization advocate who can have the DOC pursue contracting with companies promising to operate the prisons 7 percent cheaper than the state does it.

The idea behind the rejected Senate bill (besides providing contracts to prison companies that make massive campaign contributions, mostly to Republicans) was to assure legislators some control of the criteria for privatizing. They could specify, for instance, that the privateers must give hiring preference to current DOC employees, maintain certain levels of rehabilitation programs and staff training, meet security standards — not just cut corners and make money.

Scott said he’d prefer to have the Legislature do it, while not ruling out reviving the plan, and some legislators expressed confidence in the governor’s business background. Scott has done a contract or two, although the purpose of high-level negotiation in the private sector is usually to get a good deal for the buyer, not to reward the vendors.

But besides the defunct (for now) Region IV privatization, there’s an inevitable consolidation of the prison system involving about 1,300 employees statewide. That’s the DOC decision to close 11 facilities — seven prisons and four work camps — in an effort to save about $75 million a year.

Using detailed cost-benefit criteria, the department drew up plans for closing prisons and moving inmates into available space.

It’s been a little like when Congress and the Pentagon decide to close military bases and save a few billion. Everybody agrees on how to save money while not weakening national defense — but, uh, not in my district. Not if it means defense contractors will stop building submarines and bombers, laying off my constituents and no longer buying stuff from my hometown merchants.

So far, Jefferson County has been the most successful at budget survival. Jefferson Correctional Institution, with its 177 jobs and massive economic ripples in a small, poor, rural community, looks like it’s off the closing list.

The Indian River Commission has responded, trying to save a prison down there, and Hillsborough County legislators want to spare another one. Meanwhile, DOC has to go ahead with the logistics of massive restructuring on fairly short, not-final notice. The agency has been sending out “reassignment notices” to employees at the affected institutions. Some officers at those places have expressed frustration at not getting reassignments they sought, or having to drive up to 100 miles each way to a prison picked for them.

It’s wise of DOC to hold vacancies open for officers losing jobs in soon-to-close prisons. But the newly reassigned can wind up at the bottom of the duty roster, with less-desirable shifts regardless of seniority.

“Impacted officers have filled out reassignment request forms where they ranked preferences for institutions to which they will accept reassignment,” said the Teamsters Local 2011, which dislodged the Florida Police Benevolent Association as the prison officers’ bargaining agent in November. The union’s weekly “Dispatches from the Capitol” newsletter said the next step is for officers to get their choices on record, for jobs at other prisons in a grim game of musical chairs.

But meanwhile, the union is advising them to prepare for the worst and work toward the best.

Ken Wood, acting president of Teamsters Local 2011, said “the state appears to be moving forward with the closures and we face an uphill battle.” But he said that “we need to do whatever we can to try to keep them open for as long as possible, so officers and their families are not uprooted.”

The union is drafting model letters to Scott and legislative leaders, as well as to newspaper editors, detailing the impact of closings on officers, their families and communities. The Teamsters also see the situation as a rallying point, to attract members now that the bitterly fought union-representation campaign is over.

“All officers need to get involved in this closure issue,” Steve Rich, a corrections sergeant at Indian River Correctional Institution, wrote in the Teamsters bulletin. “If we fight together, we will have a stronger impact in the decision-making process.”

— Contact Senior Political Writer Bill Cotterell at (850) 671-6545 or at bcotterell@tallahassee.com.

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