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Guest column | Jim Flateau

Prison debate shouldn't happen behind closed doors

What price tag do Floridians put on public safety?

Whatever it is, some members of the state Legislature think it's too high.

Why else would the Legislature be trying to ram through without debate a bill privatizing 26 state prisons? Supporters of the bill assure us it will reduce taxpayer costs by 7 percent annually, or $22 million a year. But no one has presented any data documenting that claim.

Even before the matter of prison privatization, this whole affair raises some fundamental issues that should concern all Floridians: What happened to open government in the "Sunshine" state? Why is this bill not being openly debated like other bills that come before the Legislature? Where is the detailed cost-benefit analysis guaranteeing that taxpayers will see a dollar savings from these contracts with the private sector?

Instead, all we do know is that private prison companies last year donated nearly $1 million to the campaign coffers of our state legislators. It looks like those corporations are now seeking to reap their reward from that investment. And therein lies the potential threat to public safety.

Does anyone think a private operator can turn a profit without slashing the costs the state pays to make prisons secure for the communities outside and the staff working inside? Will we see increased violence in our prisons if staffing levels and qualifications decrease? Will we see violence spill into our communities via inmate riots, escapes and assaults on prison workers? How would we weigh the human cost of that violence? How quickly could the damage done to even one prison by rioting inmates exceed the savings of privatizing 26?

Does anyone think a private operator can stay in the black while maintaining or expanding inmate programs designed to help them live lawfully upon release? One goal of our prisons is to prepare inmates to live on our streets as law-abiding citizens. To offer inmates an alternative to a continued life of crime, prisons need to provide academic and vocational programs, drug and alcohol treatment plus job training. How will the current costs of those programs and associated staffing be viewed by bean counters obligated to show a corporate profit? Does privatization mean Floridians can no longer expect these 26 prisons to even make an attempt to rehabilitate offenders before they return to our streets?

The public has been warned, however, that it should not ask too many questions about this legislation or look at it too closely. State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, dared to pose such questions. As a result, the Senate leadership fired him as chairman of the budget subcommittee that oversees prison spending. To make sure the Pasco Republican got the message, the Senate leader also booted Fasano from the main budget committee. Apparently, free speech is not a right when spoken by a courageous member to the Senate leadership.

Public protection is the first obligation of government. That means the state has no greater responsibility than its incarceration and custodial care of those who break our laws. Our government has no business handing off that responsibility, especially in a public-private arrangement that has not been examined publicly: Neither side has yet shown whether public safety will be maintained or compromised in exchange for a dollar savings that may or may not ever materialize.

And, really, if the savings are accurate, how come Hernando County saved $2 million a year when the Sheriff's Office took over operations of the privately run county jail?

Readers would be up in arms if anyone suggested privatizing the Florida Highway Patrol, the Sheriff's Office or local police departments from Brooksville to Zephyrhills. The public demands elected officials be held directly accountable for our safety. Public protection is just not the same as privatizing the curbside pickup of garbage twice a week.

Over the years, many of our state legislators worked overtime cranking out press releases taking credit for laws increasing prison terms. They did not attach cost analyses detailing the long-term impact those laws would have on the taxpayer's dime. And they aren't doing so today, either, with privatization.

Yet the piper is now at the door, asking to be paid in the face of statewide budget shortfalls.

If the Legislature truly believes it has found a cheaper way to pay for prisons while safeguarding the public, it should welcome an open discussion to explain its solution and take credit for it.

The fact its leadership is unwilling to do so suggests another answer, which should concern us all.

Jim Flateau was chief spokesman for New York's state prison system from 1984-2005. He resides in Land O'Lakes.

Prison debate shouldn't happen behind closed doors 02/04/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 4, 2012 11:10am]
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