TALLAHASSEE — Prison breaks are the stuff of movies: toothbrushes fashioned into chisels, bedsheets braided into ropes, secret routes via pipes. But there's also a scary side to prison breaks that opponents of the Legislature's prison privatization plan are highlighting.
"Did you know that private prisons do not chase escaped inmates past the perimeter like the public prisons do, which means more escaped prisoners in our communities?" wrote Christina Bullins, a South Florida correctional probation officer. Bullins wrote an email dated Jan. 30, that was distributed by the liberal group MoveOn.org.
The claim that private prisons don't chase inmates seems widely held among state-paid correctional officers and privatization opponents. We wondered if private prisons really are more restricted in chasing escapees.
What we thought would be an easy policy check quickly turned into an all-out truth chase.
We asked three companies that run private prisons in Florida — Corrections Corp. of America, Management & Training Corp., and the GEO Group — if their policies allow for employees to cross the perimeter in pursuit of an inmate.
Company representatives told us that their employees do have that authority, but they notify local authorities about escapes.
Company policies prevented them from sharing specific security procedures.
We then turned to state law, which muddied things a bit.
The law says a private correctional officer may use force "while pursuing escapees from a facility." Another law requires all prison officers and correctional officers to immediately arrest a convict who escapes. Officers or guards "may call upon the sheriff or other officer of the state" to search for and arrest convicts.
Several experts told us that it's not clear that private guards have outright authority to chase inmates beyond the property line. The first rule seems to imply it, but it does not specifically address what happens off prison property.
"In my opinion that's part of the problem with the privatization of prisons," said Michael Hallett, a University of North Florida criminal justice professor who is opposed to the Senate plan. "It blurs the line between the state and a private party."
Next, we turned to the state contracts for private prisons to see how escapes are handled. But their policies of what to do in case of escape are redacted from public review, due to security concerns.
Republican Sen. Mike Fasano, who opposes privatization, said he's never heard of a company agreeing to go beyond the property in the pursuit of an inmate.
Unlike the state, which is protected from lawsuits under "sovereign immunity," private operators would not be protected from lawsuits if something went wrong in a chase. So they often call on public law enforcement for assistance and have agreements with the Department of Corrections to bring in help in cases of escape, riot and hostage situations.
In Palm Beach County, home to GEO Group-operated South Bay prison, sheriff's deputies would react to an escape with dog teams, horses, helicopters and patrols, said county Sheriff's Office spokesman Eric Davis. But they would do that for any escape, private or public alike, he said.
"It's not like guards are going to leave the facility unmanned (in a pursuit). That's not how it goes," Davis said.
State legislators who heard these arguments in debate were concerned enough to add an amendment to the legislation. The most recent version of the bill says contractors must pay the state for costs "associated with the pursuit or apprehension of an escapee" for the first 48 hours of the inmate's escape.
We should note a final caveat to this discussion: Prison breakouts are not very common.
There were 167 escapes in Florida from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, none of which were from inside a private or public correctional facility, according to the most recent state figures. Most involve inmates simply walking away from road prisons and work release.
The last true prison break was in 2005 when three Dade Correctional Institution inmates built a ladder, tossed a sheet of carpet over the barbed-wire fence and climbed over, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. They stole a truck at knifepoint and remained free for about an hour — until their vehicle plunged into a canal during a chase by police.
That was at a public prison, by the way.
Getting back to the email, it said: "Private prisons do not chase escaped inmates past the perimeter like the public prisons do, which means more escaped prisoners in our communities." Private prison vendors say they have the authority to chase escaped prisoners beyond their property lines. But the authorities we consulted said they would definitely take the lead if a prisoner went off campus. They said that would be the case for a state-run facility, too. We rate this claim Half True.
This ruling has been edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com/Florida.