State private prison plan facing fire from several fronts

Published Jan. 26, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — As emotions run high, lawmakers are again fast-tracking privatization of South Florida prisons while the state rushes to shut down seven others, an economic and political one-two punch that's creating anger and anxiety statewide.

The Senate Budget Committee voted 13-5 Wednesday to fast-track privatization of prisons in the southern tier of the state. Correctional officers who were not allowed to testify shouted "Shame Shame!" as security personnel hovered near lawmakers.

Republican lawmakers are determined to overcome a judge's rejection of last year's privatization plan and pass a plan that can survive legal scrutiny. The current proposal, which would amount to the largest U.S. expansion of prison privatization, would replace the state with for-profit vendors at 30 prisons in 18 South Florida counties. Only Miami's South Florida Reception Center, a point of entry for inmates, would remain state-run.

"I don't have a particular bias for public or private," said Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, privatization's leading advocate. "But I am charged, for one more year, with making every dollar count."

For-profit prison vendors would be required to run prisons at a cost of at least 7 percent less than what state-run prisons cost taxpayers. But opponents say the savings would be outweighed by the loss of jobs, economic dislocation and lack of accountability.

"You don't have all the facts," former state Sen. Ron Silver of North Miami Beach, a lobbyist for the Teamsters Union, told Alexander.

Alexander says cheaper prisons will stave off cuts to schools and health care, and the pursuit of privatization has become his final legislative crusade. But opposition is building on multiple fronts.

• Correctional officers and unions say privatization is being rushed too fast and will cause widespread disruption to families, where it's common for two or more members of the same family to hold prison jobs.

• Opponents are reviving past privatization fiascoes, including overbilling by prison operators and botched outsourcing of prison food services and inmate medical care. A state audit in 2005 found that two leading private prison firms, Geo Group and Corrections Corp. of America, overbilled the state by $13 million, and a federal grand jury is investigating construction of the state's newest private prison, Blackwater River in Milton.

• A Tampa Bay women's prison, Hillsborough Correctional in Riverview, is on the chopping block for a second year, but area lawmakers are working to keep it open despite the state's insistence that it be closed under a $75 million cost-saving plan. Sens. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey and Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, and Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, say they will fight to keep the prison open.

• In Jefferson County east of Tallahassee, a rural area with block after block of shuttered storefronts, local leaders say the planned shutdown of a prison that is the county's biggest employer would cause economic devastation. "Economically we are dying. This will be the proverbial nail in the coffin," Jefferson County Clerk of Court Kirk Reams told legislators.

Prisons are not just warehouses for criminals. In the jargon of modern-day politics, they are job creators — especially in struggling small towns where few job opportunities exist. But with the state pinched by a $1.4 billion shortfall and with the prisoner population shrinking, officials say it's a waste of money to keep empty prison dorms open.

Prison guards are incensed that over the past year the Department of Corrections has quietly moved the most troublesome and costly inmates from South Florida prisons to prisons upstate, making the south prisons more attractive to profit-minded prison vendors. A spokeswoman for the system, Ann Howard, said 79 inmates in the south are classified as "close management," out of a total of 10,000.

An emerging showdown involves the Department of Corrections' plan to close Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview, the state's only faith-based prison for women. The state says it can't afford the prison's high operating and per-inmate costs, but some lawmakers say the prison should survive because its inmates are less likely to re-offend than inmates at other prisons, and it has a large network of volunteers lobbying for its survival.

Alexander said flatly of Hillsborough: "It should be closed," citing the prison's high operating costs.

Silenced by senators Wednesday, the workers became even angrier, until Alexander met with three dozen of them for an hour and listened to their concerns. They included Sarah Babineaux, 40, who earns $32,000 a year after eight years at Martin Correctional, one of the South Florida prisons that would be privatized.

She said she lies awake at night, not knowing where her next job will be.

"It's stressful," she told Alexander. "My 17-year-old is looking for a class ring and I don't know where I'm going to purchase it."

Times/Herald staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.