Thursday, March 01, 2012

How Nine Florida Republicans Sandbagged the Private Prison Industry

By William Fisher

It wasn’t supposed to be a nail biter. It was supposed to be a bill that effortlessly slithered its way through a well-oiled State Legislature.

Here’s how it happened:

The Republican-controlled Florida legislature was set to consider a bill that would have authorized private sector bidding on all of South Florida’s state prisons. That’s twenty-nine prisons in 18 counties. The successful bidder would have to guarantee the state a seven per cent savings on the $232 million Florida now spends on these prisons.

An annual savings of about $20 million-plus was looking better and better to lawmakers faced with a statewide deficit of more than $1 billion for this year alone. That kind of economy looked particularly succulent to Republican lawmakers who have generally had an affinity with private, for-profit prisons. Free enterprise and all that jazz, y’know.

Now, it hadn’t been easy to get this legislation to the floor. On its first try, the bill ran smack into a lawsuit filed by the union representing some 4,000 state prison guards. They asserted that the prison privatization bill was unconstitutional because it was part of the state’s general budget and not a stand-alone measure as the law requires. A judge agreed.

So it was back to square one for the private prisons. A new stand-alone bill was introduced. It was expected to pass without incident.

But a funny thing happened to the bill on its way to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott, a friend of for-profit prisons. Nine Republicans jumped ship.

How come?

Well, it wasn’t for lack of intense lobbying by those in favor – largely fiscal hawks and those who received substantial campaign contributions from private prison interests – or those opposed – the union, trying to protect 4,000 jobs, and lawmakers and public policy organizations who didn’t think it was a good idea for private companies to run prisons, and who doubted that the promised savings would ever appear.

Sen. Mike Fasano, the Republican who led the charge against privatization, told James Rosico of the Associated Press that the bill was "bad public policy."

His reward? Losing the chairmanship of the Senate budget panel that oversees spending on prisons and the courts.

Some legislators simply felt that public safety, including corrections, shouldn't be contracted out. Others doubted that the state would ever see the promised savings. A delegation of state prison guards, sitting in the gallery, let loose a shout of joy.

Thus the largest prison privatization in US history crashed and burned, 21-19.

But many familiar with Florida politics think this is only Round One. They expect prison privatization to come back to the legislative calendar in the near future.

The AP reports that Florida already has seven privately-run prisons.
“Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), based in Nashville, runs the Bay, Graceville and Lake City correctional facilities, and South Florida's Moore Haven correctional facility, its website says. The GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), headquartered in Boca Raton, operates South Florida's South Bay correctional facility and Broward Transition Center, and Blackwater correctional facility in the Panhandle, according to its website.”

Companies like CCA and GEO own and operate adult prisons, juvenile facilities and immigration detention centers across the country. They have been widely criticized by many prison professionals for hiring inexperienced staff willing to work for less, focusing their management initiatives on keeping their beds filled (and thus paid for), and neglecting the health and safety of inmates. A number of their facilities have turned out to be public health nightmares, with substandard food and unsanitary conditions. There have been a number of deaths and sexual assaults in for-profit prisons.

Despite such well-publicized shortcomings, the for-profit prison business has grown consistently, spurred recently by the industry’s sales pitches that play to the necessity for cash-strapped states to balance their budgets. But prison professionals report that the resulting savings, if any, are marginal.

The two largest companies in the field, CCA and GEO, reported revenues of over a billion dollars each in 2011, and forecast healthy growth for 2012.

CCA and GEO are also major players in the organization known as ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council – an association of corporate lobbyists and state legislators. ALEC prepares “model bills” that states can adapt to their particular politics. For example, the egregious stack of paper known as B-1070, Arizona’s disastrous anti-immigrant bill, is largely an ALEC product, as are many parts of a similar bill in Alabama.

The link between private prisons and immigration? These companies and others also operate detention centers for tens of thousands of people – whole families, in fact – who are awaiting hearings before immigration judges to decide whether they will stay in the US or be deported. The tougher the laws, the more people will be picked up and detained.

Given the obvious clout of the industry, it was a rare act of genuine courage for these nine Florida Republicans to buck their Senate leadership, their Governor, and their campaign coffers to vote the vote this bill down. I was particularly struck by the reasoning of one of the rebellious Florida lawmakers, Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Republican from Alachua.

He told his Senate colleagues: “No sooner should we privatize our military than we should be privatizing our corrections department and our
correctional officers. I think it’s bad policy.”

But Mr. Oelrich must know how naïve it would be for Florida lawmakers to expect private prisons to just go away. With the financial and political firepower this industry has exhibited, they will surely be back next year if not sooner.