A little music is generating a lot of static inside Florida's prison system.
Gov. Rick Scott's former prisons chief, Ed Buss, decided it would be a good idea to let inmates buy MP3 players so they can download and listen to songs in their cells (other states do, too). Buss also thought prisoners should be allowed to receive care packages of personal items from families.
Shortly before he was ousted last summer, Buss expanded a state contract to allow sales of MP3 players and packages at prison canteens by a sole vendor, Keefe Commissary Network, under a five-year contract.
An inmate can buy the least expensive MP3 for $99.95.
To date, 28,000 inmates have received packages from relatives and friends.
Two other vendors cried foul.
They argued that the state should have demanded fair competition on sales of both items and that Keefe was profiting too much and paying the state too little in return (for example, Keefe charges inmates $16 for earbuds and gives $1 to the state).
Scott is a supporter of fair and open competition for state contracts. Buss concluded that competitive bidding laws don't apply to revenue-generating contracts like Keefe's.
About 3,800 inmates have bought MP3 players so far. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, they downloaded 368,000 songs, generating $552,000 in added revenue for Keefe, and the vendor gets to keep music kiosks and other hardware when the contract expires.
But as the inmates grooved to music, the Department of Corrections launched an internal probe of Buss and his former No. 2, Dan Ronay, after one vendor, Union Supply Co., made the explosive, and unsubstantiated, charge that Buss was seen drinking and playing cards with two Keefe executives at a corrections conference in Mississippi around the time the Florida contract was changed.
Union Supply's Tallahassee law firm, Foley & Lardner, said Keefe's original contract "did not provide for any sort of comprehensive music player program." The result, attorney Robert Hosay wrote, was a "multi-million dollar sole source, no-bid contract" for Keefe.
Another firm, JPAY, told investigators that it offered to sell MP3 players to inmates months before Keefe's contract was expanded, but that Buss said the state was "not interested."
The prison system's inspector general concluded that "there is no evidence to support a violation of unlawful compensation."
Buss' successor, Ken Tucker, could have voided the contract change that allowed sales of MP3 players and care packages. He left it alone.
"Was the contract lawfully negotiated? The answer is yes, so I'm honoring the contract with Keefe," Tucker said.
As to why inmates should have MP3 players, Tucker said idleness is a problem in prisons, and that music can soothe jangled nerves.
"It does serve to take their minds off bad things they might be thinking about, and we control the kind of music they can download," Tucker said.
Keefe's five-year deal expires in March 2014 and its rivals are eager to get a piece of this lucrative business.
But until then, inmates' downloads will generate loads of money for the vendor.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.