Privately run jails are not big cost savers

It's not every day that we in Hernando County have something vital to say about a statewide issue.

Now we do.

It's about privately run prisons. As you've probably read, a few powerful lawmakers slipped a plan into the state budget to privatize 30 prisons in 18 counties. They did it in the waning days of this year's session. And they did it, supposedly, to save money.

But here's what we have to say:

The savings of private incarceration are a mirage. That's true even by the most basic measure — annual operating costs. It's even more true if private companies are expected to take care of the expensive jails they occupy. Then privatization will ultimately cost you big. Worse still, I'm not sure private jails and prisons are even safe.

In other words, those of you in Tallahassee who are pushing this grand experiment, we've tried it out already and not just for some brief spin. We stuck with it for 22 years. We know it doesn't work.

And we aren't the only ones. At one point in the 1990s, there were four privately operated county jails in Florida. Now, there's only one, in Citrus County.

Just the jail's new name, the Hernando County Detention Center, tells you the Sheriff's Office knows something about public relations. And it wouldn't lead a half dozen of us from the Times on a two-hour jail tour, as it did two weeks ago, if it wasn't trying to make itself look good. And, no doubt, one of the surest ways to make itself look good is to make Corrections Corporation of America look bad.

Still, the new jail administrator, sheriff's Maj. Michael Page, seemed to have a lot with which to work.

Did CCA hire substandard workers to save money, as we've so often heard? Absolutely, Page said.

Most of the company's 177 jail employees applied to keep their jobs when the Sheriff's Office took over a year ago. Only 45 were hired. Page said he couldn't understand why a few of them weren't in jail.

If that's not scary enough, one hopeful former CCA employees helpfully suggested he could save the county money on buying new keys: He already had a complete set at home.

So maybe the judgment of CCA's officers wasn't the best. And maybe the jail wasn't run especially securely or efficiently. Page said installing a computerized key bank not only improved security; it allowed the jail to save hours of staff time.

Overall, the Sheriff's Office is running the jail with 39 fewer employees than CCA and for about $1 million less in operating expenses per year.

After payroll, maintenance of the jail was one of CCA's biggest expenses. Or it was supposed to be, because here, too, the company cut corners.

True, the jail has been a leaky, substandard structure from the day it opened in 1988.

But everybody knows that renters don't take care of a home the way an owner does. And when the county took over a year ago, it looked a lot like they were chasing out a longtime tenant who wouldn't lift a finger. Doors were rusted, paint peeled and leaks were so bad that deputies call one frequently flooded corridor a "no wake zone."

The county has allocated $3 million to cover the repairs. With half of this set aside for a stand-alone medical center, it doesn't look to be nearly enough. So it seems very likely that we'll be asked to pay even more for jobs CCA was supposed to do but didn't.

It wouldn't matter, of course, how big this bill is. Because even in Hernando, we know enough about Tallahassee to know this probably isn't about saving money. It's about taking care of big, powerful, generous corporations such as CCA's competitor, GEO Group of Boca Raton, which shortly after the session donated $100,000 to the Republican Party.

So maybe all we'll have is the satisfaction of saying, 20 years down the road, we told you so.

Privately run jails are not big cost savers 09/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 3, 2011 4:06pm]

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