MILTON — Deep in the Panhandle sits what could be the future of Florida prisons, where inmates in an air-conditioned fortress watch high-def TVs, wear comfortable Crocs-style shoes and take courses in life skills and literacy.
But what looks at first glance like a success story of prison privatization should raise caution flags with legislators looking to expand for-profit incarceration as a way to avoid future budget shortfalls.
Blackwater River Correctional Facility, the newest and largest private prison in Florida, houses about 2,000 inmates in Santa Rosa County, east of Pensacola. Concrete and steel sit on 55 acres just north of U.S. 90, surrounded by 10-foot-high razor wire as far as the eye can see.
"If you had to be someplace, you'd want to be here," said state Rep. Doug Broxson, R-Milton, whose district includes the prison.
Blackwater, which opened last fall after a major political dispute in the Capitol, is operated by the GEO Group, a prison and health care conglomerate based in Boca Raton. While the prison was constructed to house inmates with complex medical problems such as HIV or mental health issues, those inmates are not here.
On a recent visit, all 12 isolation cells for inmates with psychiatric crises were dark and empty.
The most troublesome inmates — those prone to violence, mentally ill, suicidal and with complex health problems requiring costly drugs — live just down the road, a mile away. They are at the state-run, high-security Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, where warden Randy Tifft routinely awaits the transfer of an inmate at Blackwater who has tried to hurt himself or someone else.
"They have the cream of the crop at Blackwater," Tifft says. "Their inmates are not on any type of psychiatric drugs and do not require any type of psychiatric care. We have the worst population in the state. If an inmate at Blackwater tries to kill himself, they send him to me."
It's common for the state to spend as much as $1,000 a day on psychotropic drugs for some of Santa Rosa's inmates, Tifft said. The Santa Rosa prison staff speaks casually about CSUs and TCUs — crisis stabilization units and temporary care units — terms not heard at nearby Blackwater.
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Gov. Rick Scott's new prisons chief, Edwin Buss, is frustrated that Blackwater is not housing the inmates it was designed for, and he plans to do something about it.
"It is perfectly built to keep an eye on offenders who may try to commit suicide, who may try to cut themselves or try to do harm to themselves or others. There is no excuse for why we're not housing that type of offender there," Buss said. "GEO is going to have to step up."
GEO is under contract to run the prison at a cost of at least 7 percent less than a state prison and still must make money for the company. GEO does it through a combination of cost-cutting, cheaper labor, recycled water, new technology, and by managing some of the least challenging inmates in the nation's third-largest prison system.
A small example of Blackwater's thrift is that the prison bought light-fitting, durable Crocs-style shoes for all inmates, while the state prison system had to seek bids for similar gear.
Blackwater also saves money on its few hundred employees, most of them nonunion correctional officers and food service workers. Starting pay for a certified correctional officer is $30,000 a year, $800 less than what the state pays.
Those workers get a big assist from technology, an advantage employees at many of Florida's aging state-owned prisons don't share. The construction of Blackwater cost taxpayers $130 million, with an ultimate cost of $210 million because it was built with borrowed money, Buss said.
The prison's shiny new brick interior walls are pockmarked with 386 digital camera lenses that monitor inmates' every move, even though most inmates appear harmless. The lockup has excellent sight lines and energy-efficient touches such as overhead lights equipped with motion sensors.
"When you leave the room, the lights go off," 59-year-old warden Mark Henry said proudly. "This facility is going to have a long, long life."
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Henry, who spent much of his career with the federal Bureau of Prisons, says Blackwater has a paid staff of 11 educators, who teach inmates classes in adult literacy, substance abuse prevention, vocational training such as truck driving, and basic life skills such as coping with stress and balancing a checkbook. They are augmented by about 40 volunteers, he said.
Florida's newest prison looks pristine, and the same might also be said of the inmate population: a low-security group who cost comparatively little to house and feed. "We have the inmates the state sends us," Henry said.
After the prison was built, it sat idle for more than a year because the state's prison population fluctuated downward during construction. But Sen. J.D. Alexander, the Lake Wales Republican who is the Capitol's most experienced budget-writer, said keeping the prison shuttered was a colossal waste of money and ordered it opened.
But rather than close an entire older prison, which would have cost hundreds of correctional officers' jobs during a period of record unemployment, the state shut wings of various prisons known as dormitories, which typically house nonviolent felons — thus sparing officers' jobs and sending more orderly inmates to Blackwater.
Budgets now awaiting final negotiations in the Legislature call for a major expansion of prison privatization in Florida. The Senate wants to privatize all prisons in an 18-county region stretching from Bradenton to the Keys, while the House wants to privatize all prisons in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
As a two-hour tour of Blackwater concluded last week, at least one lawmaker was sold on the privatization push.
Rep. Broxson shook hands with GEO Group officials and told them: "Y'all keep working hard, and we'll try to send you a few dollars every once in a while."