Editorial: Florida should phase out private prisons

Published March 9 2017

The women's prison in Gadsden County, where bathrooms flood and balance sheets don't add up, is the latest poster child for Florida's broken corrections system. The problems are also fresh evidence of how private prisons too often fail to serve inmates and taxpayers. Unfortunately, Florida is deeply invested in private prisons and the Trump administration plans to reverse an Obama-era directive that would have phased them out in the federal system.

At Gadsden Correctional, the inmates were regularly prohibited from using water, except to flush toilets, because of frequent backups in the septic system. They complained that staff refused to run the heat during the winter. The water heater, which had been broken since Thanksgiving, was just recently repaired. But it took multiple visits by a state lawmaker to see that the work got done.

For nearly two years, Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, has been visiting prison facilities around the state on a crusade to bring reforms. He learned about the water heater from inmates during a surprise visit last month, then followed the paper trail. He found that Management Training Corp., which runs the prison, requested nearly $10,000 to replace it. The state approved the money, but the warden never authorized the work. So much for efficiency being the best argument for privatization.

Richardson found many other issues. He walked into an electrical assistant class and discovered it had no supplies. Some inmates who had completed the textbook portion couldn't take the certification exam because they lacked supplies. That's an unacceptable waste of tax dollars that also ignores the principle that prison should rehabilitate people and get them ready to re-enter society.

There is plenty of blame for the state, too. The Department of Management Services, which oversees Florida's seven privately run prisons, had a full-time monitor working at Gadsden who failed to find any of what Richardson uncovered on his surprise visits. The monitor claimed not to know the water heater was broken even though he was copied on the repair order. Richardson also learned that 11 staff members at the prison were being paid by the state, yet their personnel costs were not subtracted from Management Training Corp.'s contract. Richardson, who sits on the House criminal justice subcommittee, has filed a bill (HB 893) removing the Department of Management Services from overseeing private prisons and shifting that authority to the Department of Corrections, which is more suited for it.

Better yet would be for Florida to phase out its contracts with for-profit prison companies and acknowledge privatization is not the answer. Fixing the state's prisons will take a serious commitment of public funding to restore aging facilities, add staff, increase salaries and improve living conditions. That burden belongs to Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, not a single lawmaker who is acting as auditor, monitor and maintenance man.