1. Florida Politics

PolitiFact Florida: Kathleen Ford says private prisons use third-grade data to plan for prison beds

Published Jul. 18, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford said recently that among the top issues facing the city is the need for improving graduation rates.

She offered a disturbing statistic to back up her point.

"We know that our private prison systems are calculating how many new beds (they will need) based on the third grade, number of third-graders, and that's just wrong," said Ford, a former City Council member who is running for mayor for the third time. "And I think waiting until kids are ready for kindergarten to begin to intervene is too late."

PolitiFact Florida plans on keeping an eye on St. Petersburg's mayoral candidates and thought Ford's claim merited more scrutiny.

In this case, Ford mangled an oft-repeated, inaccurate talking point about prisons using third-grade reading scores to predict future bed needs. It has been wrongly cited by Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell, and debunked by and the Washington Post.

Ford went one step further by focusing on private prison operators and the number of third-graders, not academic performance.

Her claim is "nonsense," said Peter Leone, a University of Maryland education professor who specializes in behavioral disorders and school discipline. Leone was the director of the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice, which produced a report touting that "at least one state" uses third-grade reading scores to project future prison bed needs. Leone told us the statement was made by a colleague "before he got the facts."

"It is an urban legend that politicians like to trot out to claim that either the schools are failing or that we are not tough enough on crime," he said.

We ran Ford's words by two of the largest private prison operators in the country, Corrections Corporation of America and Management and Training Corp.

Spokesmen for both companies denied Ford's claim. Private prisons respond to inmate projections from the state government, so it would not make sense for them to do their own forecasting.

"This is truly the urban myth that will not die," said CCA spokesman Steve Owen.

As evidence to support her claim, Ford directed us to the spring 2012 newsletter of the Nevada Department of Corrections. The newsletter does not speak to her exact point, but it does mention children who do not read on grade level are more likely to drop out, use drugs or end up in prison.

"So many nonreaders wind up in jail that officials have found they can use the rate of illiteracy to help calculate future prison needs," the newsletter says. "Indiana's former governor has stated that determining the number of new prisons to build is based, in part, on the number of second-graders not reading at second-grade level. In California they plan how many jail cells they will build in the future by how many children are not reading on grade level by third grade."

But neither Indiana nor California does what Nevada claims it does, officials in those states told us. Neither does Nevada.

In Florida, the Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimates future inmate populations through a variety of factors, including historical trends using the state crime rate and the number of arrests and convictions. "Educational attainment is not one of them," said EDR director Amy Baker.

Our ruling

In making the case for focusing more on education, Ford said: "We know that our private prison systems are calculating how many new beds (they will need) based on the third grade, number of third-graders, and that's just wrong."

That's a spinoff of an urban legend.

Some of the largest private prison operators in the country say they get their estimates from the states. And the states tell us that what a third-grader does isn't a factor.

It's certainly not happening in Florida, which is the only place St. Petersburg's mayor might have some level of control.

This claim needs to be locked up. We rate it Pants on Fire!

This item has been edited for print. Read the full fact-check at


  1. Visitors head to Florida's Old Capitol building on Tuesday, the first day of the annual session. The same day, the advocacy group Equality Florida denounced four bills filed by Republican lawmakers, calling them “the most overtly anti-LGBTQ agenda from the Florida legislature in recent memory.” [SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Most of the bills try to eliminate local ordinances, and Republicans say they’ve been unfairly labeled.
  2. Attorney Joseph Bondy tweeted this photo of his client, Lev Parnas (right) with former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi on Friday, Jan. 17. Bondi on Friday was named on of President Donald Trump's impeachment lawyers. [Twitter]
    Parnas’ lawyer tweeted out the photo of the former Florida attorney general along with #TheyAllKnew.
  3. In this Feb. 22, 2018 file photo, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, speaks to reporters outside the West Wing in Washington. President Donald Trump's legal team will include Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general, former Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, the former independent counsel who led the Whitewater investigation into President Bill Clinton, according to a person familiar with the matter. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) [J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE  |  AP]
    The former Florida attorney general reportedly will join former Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton.
  4. Florida Senator Rob Bradley, R- Fleming Island, watches the action on the first day of the session, 1/14/2020.  [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
    A popular bill would allow judges to dole out punishments less than the mandatory minimum sentences spelled out in state law for many drug crimes if the defendant meets certain criteria.
  5. Vice President Mike Pence take selfies with supporters after giving a campaign speech during the "Keep America Great" rally at the Venetian Event Center at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, January 16, 2020.  [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    ‘Come November the American people are going to have our say,’ Pence said.
  6. Rep. Stan McClain, an Ocala Republican, presents a bill that would allow Florida public colleges and universities to sponsor charter schools, during a January 2020 meeting of the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee. [The Florida Channel]
    Alternative authorizers have been found unconstitutional in the past. But that isn’t stopping the effort.
  7. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, members of the Florida Cabinet, left, and the Florida Supreme Court, right, stand at attention as the colors are posted in the Florida Senate during the first day of the Florida legislative session in Tallahassee, Tuesday, January 14, 2020.  [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
    The court ruled that Amendment 4‘s “all terms of sentence” include the payment of all court fees, fines and restitution.
  8. Thousands rallied and marched from the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center to the Florida Historic Capitol to demand more money for public schools Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. Thousands of school workers from around the state thronged Florida's Capitol on Monday to press Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to more than double the nearly $1 billion the governor is proposing for teacher raises and bonuses.  (Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP) [TORI LYNN SCHNEIDER  |  AP]
    The PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee cutting exercise would come in nearly 25 percent below Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal.
  9. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.,, center, speaks as fellow candidates businessman Tom Steyer, from left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. listen, Tuesday during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) [PATRICK SEMANSKY  |  AP]
    The candidates’ proposals reveal differences in how they plan to approach the issue.
  10. Vice President Mike Pence points to supporters before speaking during a campaign rally at the Huntington Center, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak) [TONY DEJAK  |  AP]
    Vice President Mike Pence will take the stage in New Tampa, at the Venetian Event Center at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church, at 1:30 p.m. It wasn’t planned that way.