Facing deep budget cuts every year, privatization has become the rallying cry of Florida’s legislative leaders. Private companies have long been needed to efficiently complete government projects, like road construction. But unfortunately today, some lawmakers want to privatize state prisons for the sake of privatization – ignoring real numbers, hardworking correctional officers and public safety.
Private prisons aren’t new in Florida – but the road to corporate corrections is bumpy. When the legislature first authorized private prison companies in 1989, state oversight bounced between departments and ended with directors being fired and imprisoned for ethics violations and embezzlement. In 2004 responsibility for private prisons was placed under the Department of Management Services, an agency that focuses on human resources and contract issues. Florida is the only state that doesn’t have a correctional agency overseeing its private prisons.
State contracts require that private prisons save at least 7 percent over state-run prisons, and leaders of the Florida Senate claim private prisons meet, and usually exceed, this requirement. But in pushing these plans for their friends, they ignore serious flaws in the statistics. And sometimes they run over friends, as they did Wednesday, when they stripped Sen. Mike Fasano of his chairmanship of the criminal justice budget committee for questioning holes in the numbers.
Florida legislators rely on the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability for statistics and data. Unfortunately, these in-depth reports may only be requested by the Senate President or Speaker of the House. And despite their push for the largest prison privatization plan in the country, the most recent report was issued in 2008.
Prison privatization proponents rely on two brief OPPAGA memos, issued in 2009 and 2010, for their statistics. While the memos predict that privatizing prisons could save between 5.4 and 29.3 percent, the accountability office admits its calculations are flawed. “While significant, these cost savings estimates are subject to caveats and should be evaluated cautiously.”
OPPAGA cannot accurately calculate savings because of differences in prison size and location, differences of inmate populations, and the type of rehabilitation programs provided. Many differences can’t be avoided because of the nature of our system. Still, there’s extensive evidence that shows private prisons have received the cream-of-the-crop inmates – leaving the state with more-expensive sick, elderly and dangerous prisoners.
Even if proponents were correct in their calculations, there’s a greater cost in privatizing our prisons – a cost to working Floridians.
The supposed savings come from cutting the salaries and benefits of correctional officers. These men and women who keep us safe every day deserve to earn middle-class wages.
Correctional officers, many in small-town Florida, will bear the brunt of the privatization push. With so many state prisons targeted for closure, it won’t be easy for them to pick up and transfer to another public facility. If they’re lucky enough to land a job with a private prison, they can expect a reduction in pay and a fraction of their current benefits.
Throughout this recession state workers have received no pay raises and watched their pensions cut. Our tax dollars shouldn’t fund a wealthy CEO’s retirement over fair wages to correctional officers.
The second major reason private prisons are able to claim savings is by doing business on the cheap, by reducing security, staff and safety. The same state memos show private prisons continually lack well-trained staff and security standards – risking the safety of inmates, officers and the public. Already, Florida has fined these corporations millions of dollars for violating contracts and safety standards in their prisons.
Florida is rushing to privatize state prisons because corporations have donated to re-election campaigns and leadership slush funds. Until an independent watchdog accurately calculates the savings, we cannot afford the safety and human risks of privatizing more prisons. The cost is simply too great.
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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