The Legislature's corporate corrections push could cost Floridians greatly

By PAULA DOCKERY

Tampa Tribune February 05, 2012

Privatization has become the rallying cry of Florida's legislative leaders facing budget cuts every year. Private companies have long been needed to efficiently complete government projects, such as road construction. But unfortunately today, some lawmakers want to privatize state prisons for the sake of privatization ignoring real numbers, hardworking correctional officers and public safety.

Private prisons aren't new in Florida, but the road to corporate corrections is bumpy. When the Legislature first authorized private prison companies in 1989, state oversight bounced between departments and ended with directors being fired and imprisoned for ethics violations and embezzlement. In 2004 responsibility for private prisons was placed under the Department of Management Services, an agency that focuses on human resources and contract issues. Florida is the only state that doesn't have a correctional agency overseeing its private prisons.

State contracts require private prisons save at least 7 percent over state-run prisons, and leaders in the Senate claim private prisons meet, and usually exceed, this requirement. But in pushing these plans for friends, they ignore serious flaws in statistics. Sometimes they run over friends, as they did Wednesday, when they stripped Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, of his chairmanship of the criminal justice budget committee for questioning holes in the numbers.

Legislators rely on the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability for statistics and data. Unfortunately, these in-depth reports may be requested only by the Senate president or speaker of the House. And despite their push for the largest prison privatization plan in the country, the most recent report was issued in 2008.

Prison privatization proponents rely on two brief OPPAGA memos, issued in 2009 and 2010, for their statistics. While the memos predict that privatizing prisons could save between 5.4 percent and 29.3 percent, the accountability office admits its calculations are flawed: "While significant, these cost savings estimates are subject to caveats and should be evaluated cautiously."

OPPAGA cannot accurately calculate savings because of differences in prison size, location and inmate population, and the type of rehabilitation programs provided. Many differences can't be avoided because of the nature of our system. Still, there's extensive evidence that shows private prisons have received the cream-of-the-crop inmates leaving the state with more expensive sick, elderly and dangerous prisoners.

Even if proponents were correct, there's a greater cost: The supposed savings come from cutting the salaries and benefits of correctional officers. These men and women, who keep us safe, deserve middle-class wages.

Correctional officers, many in small-town Florida, will bear the brunt of the privatization push. With so many state prisons targeted for closure, it won't be easy for them to pick up and transfer to another public facility. If they're lucky enough to land a job with a private prison, they can expect a reduction in pay and a fraction of current benefits.

Throughout this recession state workers have received no pay raises and watched their pensions get cut. Our tax dollars shouldn't fund a wealthy CEO's retirement over fair wages to officers.

Private prisons also are able to claim savings by doing business on the cheap. The state memos show private prisons continually lack well-trained staff and security standards risking the safety of inmates, officers and the public. Already, Florida has fined these corporations millions of dollars for violating contracts and safety standards.

Florida is rushing to privatize state prisons because corporations have donated to re-election campaigns and leadership slush funds. Until an independent watchdog accurately calculates the savings, we cannot afford the safety and human risks of privatizing more prisons. The cost is simply too great.

Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate.