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Florida prison operator with worst COVID-19 safety record has deep political roots

As the pandemic spreads in Florida’s prisons, private operators GEO Group, CoreCivic and Management & Training Corporation (MTC) are as influential as ever.
Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton.
Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published May 1, 2020

As Florida’s prison system fights to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, two facilities stand out ⁠for the wrong reasons: Blackwater River in the far reaches of the Panhandle, where six inmates have died of the disease, and South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach County, where 36 staff members — more than any other compound — became infected.

The two are among seven state prisons run by private contractors. Both Blackwater and South Bay are operated by Boca Raton-based GEO Group. GEO runs three other prisons in the state while CoreCivic and Management & Training Corporation (MTC) run one each.

Blackwater fell under a harsh spotlight when it was revealed that all five of the first — and at the time only Florida inmates to succumb to COVID-19 — were incarcerated there. That was more deaths at one prison than in the entire state of California, which has the nation’s largest prison system. California had one fatality as of late this week.

The Blackwater five were Jeffrey Sand, William Wilson, Rafael Rosario, Jessie Bannerman and Dana Peterson. Late Thursday, two more prison system fatalities were announced, including a sixth at Blackwater, David Thomas.

Sand and Wilson’s deaths, numbers one and two, were not publicly disclosed by Florida’s Department of Corrections for six days, and were only acknowledged after the News Service of Florida ferreted them out through independent reporting.

Blackwater and South Bay are not the only Florida prisons with serious COVID-19 problems. Tomoka Correctional near Daytona Beach has 84 positives among inmates and 12 among staffers, and Sumter Correctional west of Orlando, which has 51 among inmates and eight staffers. Both are run by the FDC.

Nevertheless the private prisons’ coronavirus problems add a new layer to the litany of questions that have surrounded the facilities. From the start, they were placed under the purview of the Department of Management Services, an agency whose mission involves a grab bag of functions that have little to do with criminal justice or corrections. The arrangement allowed the prisons to operate outside the tight budget constraints of the Department of Corrections.

A 2018 audit of the Department of Management Services bureau that oversees private prisons identified various operational problems, including corrections officers with expired firearms cards, problems with grievance procedures and riot-control teams that were out of compliance with guidelines. Problems with annual reviews were cited, as well as a failure to submit mandatory annual reports to the department secretary.

The contractors have been accused by a legislative critic of overcharging the state — even though they already receive more funding per inmate than state-run prisons.

Then-Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, brought in to clean up a state-run operation sullied by systemic abuse and corruption, complained to lawmakers in 2015 that private prisons got to “cherry pick” the inmates who were the least violent and least expensive to maintain.

Those inmates generally enjoyed newer, nicer facilities — even with air conditioning — a far cry from the dirty and crumbling prisons that comprise much of the Department of Corrections.

In some other states, private prisons have fallen out of favor, and the federal government under President Barack Obama sought to phase them out of the Bureau of Prisons, due to concerns about making inmates a profit center for private interests. That initiative was promptly reversed under the incoming administration of Donald Trump. Whether Blackwater’s troubles could lead to a Florida reckoning is highly questionable, since the industry has inoculated itself by pouring millions into campaign contributions, mostly into coffers of the state’s dominant Republican Party.

As has been reported over the years, private prison operators have showered the GOP and its dominant players — including Govs. Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio — with campaign money. Elected officials have in turn shown little interest in taking a hard look at the private prisons, except when proposing to increase their numbers, as nearly occurred during the Scott administration.

“Those contracts can be terminated,” Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes said of the deals, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, afforded Geo and others. “We are constantly reviewing to ensure that there is accountability.”

However, Brandes, vice chairman of Florida’s Senate Committee on Criminal Justice and a frequent critic of the Department of Corrections, speculated that private prisons might be seeing more deadly cases of COVID-19 not because of any management bungling but rather because their populations skew slightly older.

All of the dead at Blackwater were 60 or older.

Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wants “strict oversight” in how private prisons are dealing with the pandemic. She now heads the advocacy group Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

In a statement to the Herald, GEO Group called activists’ concerns “baseless and false” and said that such claims diminish the work of those who “hold us accountable to the highest standards on a daily basis.”

“Our contracts with the state are based on stringent oversight and there are full-time, on-site monitors and detailed operational requirements that are subject to financial penalties if not adhered to,” GEO said.

The company also asserted that Blackwater had “fully disclosed” the deaths to both the Department of Management Services and Florida Department of Corrections. The Department of Corrections acknowledged as much but said the department, which faced a torrent of criticism for initially keeping information about COVID-19’s spread secret, did not immediately divulge the deaths because it was “determining the proper manner” for doing so.

The fiercest critic of privately run prisons might have been state Rep. David Richardson, a Democrat who is no longer in the Legislature. In 2017, the trained forensic auditor, who made a habit of personally inspecting prisons, undertook his own investigation. He issued a report that he said demonstrated beyond a doubt that private prisons were not saving the taxpayers money as promised.

Richardson, who lost a race for the U.S. House and now sits on the Miami Beach City Commission, concluded that the Florida Department of Corrections had paid CoreCivic $16 million in overcharges, either through government ineptitude or calculated fraud. No action was taken against CoreCivic.

He found that the Department of Management Services had been signing contracts that used inflated measures and uncovered multiple health and safety violations at the MTC-run Gadsden Correctional Facility, a women’s prison that has the second-largest number of staffers (14) who have tested positive for COVID-19.

MTC, in a statement to the Herald, said that the firm is working closely with Florida’s state agencies to reduce COVID-19 risks and added that the private sector brings “flexibility and innovation inside prisons ... and at the same time, we save taxpayers money.“

The same year that Richardson released his damning report, the state House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted to transfer oversight of private facilities over to the FDC. It never happened. What’s more, the next year, Florida renewed a lease on a CoreCivic property for $50 million to house the Department of Business and Professional Regulation for 10 years.

With regard to the current pandemic, CoreCivic, which runs Lake City Correctional Facility, said in a public statement that its “health services administrators cooperate fully with local and state health departments.”

Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for Florida Gov. DeSantis, said “it is false to say the DeSantis administration is not transparent in disclosing the deaths of inmates related to COVID-19,” adding that privately run facilities “follow the same procedures as the (Florida Department of Corrections).”

Mark Inch, secretary of the Department of Corrections, said: “It takes diligence to provide accurate and releasable information. I’ve committed to the families of the incarcerated to keep them informed and I plan to continue to do just that.”

The Department of Management Services declined to comment.

A Miami Herald analysis of the most recent campaign finance data shows that the flow of money from private prison operators, a sluice gate opened more than a decade earlier, has not receded.

The analysis shows that with a total contribution of $3.7 million, GEO Group ranks among the top 10 contributors to the Florida Republican Party in the past 15 years, excluding transfers from political campaigns. George Zoley, the company’s CEO, contributed $90,000 more to the Florida GOP in the same period.

During those years, GEO gave one-tenth that amount to the Florida Democratic Party.

The company and its executives, including CEO Zoley, gave generously to Friends of Ron DeSantis, a political committee that supported the Republican candidate in his 2018 race for governor.

It was a continuation of a pattern. Between 2012 and 2017, the firm and its political committees gave $700,000 to committees supporting then-Gov. Rick Scott. Zoley also hosted a 2014 fundraiser for Scott’s final gubernatorial campaign. In 2018, GEO and its affiliates helped financially fuel Scott’s successful U.S. Senate run.

In 2016, GEO gave $50,000 to Florida First Project, a super PAC that supported Sen. Rubio’s re-election campaign.

Sens. Rubio and Scott declined to comment.

In 2018, GEO hired Republican Joe Negron as its top lawyer, paying him $400,000, the same month he stepped down as Florida Senate president. He had been an enthusiastic supporter of private prisons.

Separate PACs owned by GEO, CoreCivic and MTC gave roughly $3.5 million in total in federal campaign donations between 2006 and 2018, according to campaign finance data compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Around a fifth of that money went to the Democrats. The rest went to Republican campaigns, party committees and leadership PACs. Seventy-five percent of GEO’s contribution of $1.5 million benefited the GOP.

The three firms together spent roughly $30 million lobbying the White House and the Justice Department, among other agencies, lobbying disclosure reports show.

Among the lobbyists GEO has hired are prominent Trump-connected Floridians ⁠— including lobbyist Brian Ballard, who ran Trump Victory PAC in 2016, and Pamela Bondi, Florida attorney general from 2010 to 2019. She recently helped represent the president at his impeachment trial.

The campaign contributions and Washington, D.C., lobbying dollars doubtless haven’t hurt GEO’s business prospects. From 2006 to 2020, GEO, CoreCivic and MTC won federal contracts worth up to $38 billion.

Politics and prisons

The Blackwater prison owes its existence to highly unusual political maneuvering in Tallahassee.

It happened while Rubio was Florida House speaker, a period that stretched from 2006-2009. Rubio hired a consultant who had been a former trustee on a GEO trust to help draft the 2007 House appropriations bill. The same consultant also worked with Ray Sansom, Rubio’s budget chief and eventual successor as House speaker. Sansom inserted language into the bill to build Blackwater River in his own district.

That was at a time when the prison system was under capacity.

“There was no cost-benefit analysis, no testimony from opponents, and little or no discussion,” the Times/Herald Bureau reported at the time. “It was authorized through budget ‘proviso’ language, a long-standing practice used by legislators to direct the spending of a specific appropriation and ... sidestep intense debate.”

GEO would be granted contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to run both Blackwater and South Bay.

A federal investigation into improper use of credit cards issued by the Republican Party led to a subpoena of records for the construction for Blackwater. Sansom had traveled to Boca Raton — where GEO is headquartered — in March 2008 on “personal business” a week before inserting the language to build the facility into the budget. GEO won the right to operate it.

That part of the investigation related to the facility did not lead to any charges, but a federal grand jury did indict Sansom for falsifying the budget to help a GOP donor construct a $6 million aircraft hangar.

The charges were eventually dismissed, although Sansom resigned his position as House Speaker in 2009 right before the House considered a vote on whether to remove him.

Gov. Scott had the same former GEO trustee on his budget advisory team in 2011.

Legislators again used the same “proviso” language that year to push through legislation aimed at privatizing 19 more state prisons. A court ruled it was in violation of Florida’s constitution.

These episodes hardly fazed the private prison behemoth, which kept giving and giving.

State campaign finance records show that from 2010 to 2017, committees that supported Scott received $36,000 in personal contributions from senior GEO executives and their family members. This was in addition to the $700,000 GEO itself contributed. MTC and CoreCivic together also kicked in $28,000 to Scott’s PAC in that same period.

CoreCivic won contracts worth $400 million for running Lake City as well as Graceville Correctional Facility, Bay Correctional Facility and Moore Haven in 2009-10.

In 2014, the operation of the latter three shifted to GEO in contracts worth roughly $400 million.

Meanwhile, MTC started running Gadsden CF in Quincy in 2010.

Gov. DeSantis and his Friends of Ron DeSantis, benefited by around $230,000 in contributions in 2018 from GEO Group and its top executives and their family members, including $100,000 from CEO George Zoley.

Negron, not only scored a $400,000 job from GEO, but the company shelled out an additional $100,000 for his wife Rebecca’s failed run for Congress.

Friends in the Capital

Since pulling up Tallahassee roots and transplanting in Washington, Scott and Rubio have retained their ties to GEO..

FEC records show the firm pitched in donations for both of Rubio’s Senate runs and his 2016 presidential campaign.

Scott’s fundraising committees and affiliated PACs received $115,000 from GEO and its leadership for his 2018 Senate campaign.

In a 2016 report, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded that contracted prisons were not necessarily lower cost and had a higher rate of security incidents. The report included a response from GEO dated Aug. 9, 2016.

Two days later, GEO contributed $50,000 to Rebuilding America Now, a super PAC backing Donald Trump.

A week after that, the Obama administration announced it would be phasing out Department of Justice contracts with private prison firms.

The very next day, GEO made another $100,000 contribution to Rebuilding America Now and a further $125,000 a few months later. In late February 2017, not long after President Trump took office, new Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama administration’s order.

The Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies have benefited the firm. GEO has inked deals to operate migrant detention centers, a growth industry.

CoreCivic and MTC have cashed in as well.

Day 1 Alliance, a trade organization representing GEO, MTC, CoreCivic and other private prison contractors, said in a statement that its members have “zero-tolerance policies against lobbying for or against policies, regulations, or legislation that impact the basis for or duration of an individual’s incarceration or detention.”

But for prison reform advocates, the connection between the firms’ political spending and the contracts they are awarded indicates a pay-to-play arrangement.

“Nobody spends that kind of money and expects nothing in return,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

“When you combine the lack of oversight with the profit motive and a politically powerless, captive population, it’s a recipe for bad outcomes — and sometimes lethal outcomes.”

The Miami Herald’s Samantha J. Gross and McClatchy Washington Bureau’s Ben Wieder contributed to this story.

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