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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Florida should take closer look at private prisons

The federal government has announced it will end its use of private prisons after concluding private companies simply don't do a very good job housing and caring for inmates. A recent audit of privately run federal prisons that found serious problems, and the declining inmate population, led to the change. It's time for Florida to revisit its relationships with private prison companies.

The U.S. Justice Department is cutting ties with private prison companies, citing poor results in safety, services and cost savings. The new inspector general's report found that by many measures, contract facilities were inferior to government-run ones. Far more contraband managed to get inside private prisons, including cellphones, tobacco and even weapons. There were more incidents of violence and greater problems with inmate discipline, as well as more frequent lockdowns, which are a sign of security problems. The review determined that the government does a better job than private vendors of providing services such as job training and education — key elements in reducing recidivism. If privatizing corrections doesn't adequately protect inmates and staff, provides fewer rehabilitative services and doesn't save money, it's hard to find any public benefit to outsourcing.

Only about 22,000 inmates nationwide are housed by the federal Bureau of Prisons. The majority of U.S. prisoners reside in state prisons, including about 100,000 in Florida. Criminal justice reform advocates are hoping the federal policy change will trickle down to the states. That could have a positive effect, although the loss of federal contracts could also mean prison companies will put more pressure on states to keep their business.

Florida has seven private prisons that house about 10,000 inmates. The three contractors running them are the ones just jettisoned by the Justice Department: Geo Group, Management and Training Corp. and Corrections Corporation of America. In addition, all of juvenile corrections in Florida is privatized, and contractors provide adult inmate services such as health care, drug treatment, vocational training and electronic monitoring. Amid a nationwide movement to reduce incarceration rates, scrutiny is still needed over private companies' ancillary roles in the corrections system.

It doesn't inspire confidence that lawmakers are busy cashing industry checks. Geo Group has steered at least $288,000 to incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and his wife, Rebecca, who lost a congressional race Tuesday. Corrections Corporation of America and Management and Training Corp. play the influence game too. Floridians need to know what these companies are getting in return for their generosity.

Private prisons are on the way out at the federal level while the industry remains plenty comfortable in Florida. Instead of accepting their patronage, Florida officials should take a hard look at the Justice Department's findings, which raise serious doubts about whether for-profit companies should have any role at all in Florida's prisons.

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