TALLAHASSEE — Florida, famous for shipping orange juice all over the country, may yet be known for a very different kind of export: criminals.
With the inmate population hovering around 100,000 and the state lacking money to build more prisons, the Legislature has given the Corrections Department the authority to ship inmates to other states for the first time.
"It's a safety valve," says the plan's sponsor, Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who oversees prison spending. "This is not a mandate. It's a passive safety net."
Crist said shipping prisoners would be considered only as a last resort to avoid the early release of inmates because of overpopulation. The cost would be agreed upon in talks with the receiving states.
A prison bill (SB 1722) that will be effective July 1 allows the state to ship inmates to state-run or private prisons in other states.
The nation's largest private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, houses prisoners from eight states, including California, and has long promoted the transfer idea in Florida without success. Sen. Crist insists he came to this idea himself and not at the behest of the prison industry.
Corrections Corporation of America calls itself "the leader in out-of-state housing" on its Web site. It operates 62 prisons and has thousands of surplus beds in other states that it is eager to fill with convicted felons, and Florida has the nation's third-largest prison system.
A year ago, CCA urged the Legislature to follow 15 other states that export inmates, calling it cost-effective. The idea went nowhere, but that was before the bottom fell out of the economy and the state budget collapsed with a $6 billion shortfall.
"This is not a new issue," said CCA's Tallahassee lobbyist, Matt Bryan. "This just gives the state another option to deal with a potential rapid influx of new inmates."
Bryan noted that building a 1,300-bed prison costs about $100 million. Next year's budget will be the first in recent memory with no money set aside for prison construction.
Exporting inmates may never come to pass because Florida's inmate population has stabilized in recent months and has fallen below earlier projections. In fact, a 3,300-bed prison in rural Suwannee County is built but not yet fully open.
The prison population was at about 101,000 this week and the bed capacity is about 106,000. The population fluctuates daily and is constantly affected by the need to move prisoners who have special needs or for disciplinary reasons.
Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil is not enthusiastic about exporting prisoners. He said it undermines the goal of reducing recidivism by encouraging inmates to build ties to the communities they will return to upon their release.
"It would not be something that we would be embracing or moving forward with," McNeil said.
The new law requires the Corrections Department to take into account the proximity of an inmate's family before relocating the inmate.
One possible category of exported prisoners is undocumented immigrants.
As of June 2008, Florida prisons held 5,523 inmates who were undocumented immigrants in the U.S. illegally. About 60 percent were in prison for violent crimes.
The Florida Police Benevolent Association, a large and vocal union representing corrections officers, also opposes exporting inmates, partly because it would help the private prison industry that the union has long opposed.
"Our preference would be to build public prisons and keep prisoners here in Florida," the union's David Murrell said. "When you start sending prisoners to other states, you're asking for trouble."
According to news reports, Idaho officials last year removed about 300 prisoners from a GEO Group-run Texas prison because of understaffing and lax supervision. In Maine, civil rights groups and inmate lawyers said a plan to ship inmates to Oklahoma was a burden to families and would increase recidivism.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.