TALLAHASSEE — The fastest privatization venture ever undertaken by Florida took a big step forward Monday when the state formally sought plans from private firms to operate all prisons in an 18-county region in South Florida.
In an effort to cut costs, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature set a Jan. 1, 2012, deadline to privatize 30 state prisons, road camps and work release centers.
Despite the accelerated pace, vendors must provide a mass of documentation and are required to make site visits to all 30 prisons being privatized by Aug. 16, according to a bid document released by the Department of Corrections.
The private vendor is required by law to run prisons for at least 7 percent less money than the state, and vendors must offer an array of programs to inmates designed to ease their return to society and reduce the chance they will commit new crimes and return to prison.
A draft contract says in part: "All programs shall be evidence based and shown through current research to successfully reduce recidivism."
One of every three state prison inmates returns to prison within three years of release.
The state will hire only one company to run all those prisons, which sets up a high-stakes competitive battle between the nation's two biggest private prison operators: Corrections Corp. of America, based in Nashville, and the GEO Group of Boca Raton. Both companies already operate prisons in Florida.
Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss said it makes sense to hire only one vendor.
"You'll get a better price. More volume, better price," Buss said. "This is going to be some of the most competitive bidding the country has ever seen for private prisons."
The bidding process is moving ahead despite a lawsuit filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the bargaining agent for unionized correctional officers.
PBA executive director Matt Puckett said he had not thoroughly analyzed the bid documents and could not comment on them in detail. But the union leader said many PBA members in South Florida are "devastated" at the prospects of having to find new jobs or move upstate to keep their prison jobs.
"To be told you've got to pack up and move to Central or North Florida or change careers, I think, is really uncalled for," Puckett said.
The major prisons being privatized are in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin and Charlotte counties.
State budget documents show that it costs $311 million a year for the state to run the prisons in those 18 counties.
The Legislature chose the region to be run by a private vendor, and a 14-member panel of lawmakers must approve the contract before it can go into effect.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.