Florida's work-release centers quietly going private

Published July 2, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Rick Scott and legislators tried to privatize South Florida prisons, the state Senate rejected it.

When the state sought to privatize health care for inmates, two unions filed suit, stalling it.

Undeterred, the Department of Corrections is pursuing privatization on a new front. The agency will seek bids to privatize all 20 of its work-release centers, including three each in Pinellas County and South Florida, even though the Legislature didn't mandate it.

The state has not made the privatization plan public.

The prison system says it has the authority under state law, but the Teamsters union that represents state correctional officers is threatening a lawsuit.

Ken Wood, acting president of Teamsters Local 2011 in Tampa, calls the latest venture "highly suspect" and says: "We're reviewing our legal options."

Hundreds of nonviolent, well-behaved inmates approaching the end of their sentences live in small work-release centers and earn money working jobs in the community to smooth their return to society.

Private companies now run 13 of the 33 centers, and about 330 government employees work at the 20 state-run centers.

Even after closing six prisons, the nation's third-largest prison system continues to run a deficit and Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker is seeking to cut costs.

He said private operators hire employment specialists and have stronger ties with employers that hire inmates than the state does.

"If there's things the private providers can do better than us, then we should privatize it," Tucker said.

The plan has quietly been in the works at the Department of Corrections for some time. Scott's budget proposal to the Legislature early this year included privatizing six more work-release centers.

The Legislature, anticipating that step, reduced next year's prison budget by $460,000.

Privatization sets off alarms with state workers because it gives rise to fears of lost jobs or longer commutes to distant facilities.

The state plans to seek competitive bids by mid July.

Centers slated for outsourcing by Jan. 1, 2013, include those in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Pembroke Pines, Miami and Opa-locka.