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Florida Private Prison Criticized

by Glenn Wright and Dan Pens

Louisville, Kentucky based private prison vendor U.S. Corrections Corporation (USCC) was sharply criticized by Florida's Auditor General in three separate reports issued by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA). The reports were the result of state audits of Gadsden Correctional Institution, a 768 bed adult female prison in Quincy, Florida. USSC constructed the prison and has operated the facility under contract with the state of Florida since it opened in March, 1995.

Some of the most serious problems cited relate to staffing. Starting pay at Gadsden is about $18,000/yr, or 7% lower than a state operated starting guard's salary. USCC also offers a much leaner benefits package to its employees than what is offered to state prison workers. Consequently, the average employee turnover rate in state prisons is 22 percent, compared with a staggering 200 percent at Gadsden. During one ten month period, according to the State Auditor, 424 different individuals had held the 223 total staff positions at the institution.

Florida Statute 944.714(2) mandates that "correctional officers" must be certified by the state, with the exception of guards on "temp" or "trainee" status whose employment must not exceed 180 days. Sixty percent of the Gadsden's 142 guard employees were not certified by the state, according to OPPAGA, compared with an average of 33% uncertified (temp or trainee) guards in state run prisons.

According to a Gadsden prisoner who contacted PLN, "They are putting fired or investigated FL DOC rejects in here. I feel unsafe. There are no rules except those that change every five minutes or by every shift."

The OPPAGA reports also cite a high incidence of use of force at Gadsden. State run prisons average two use of force reports per month. Gadsden had 15 such reports in a five month period, fifty percent more than state prisons. Only one of those use of force incidents was properly investigated, and as of September, 1995, USCC had stopped notifying the DOC Inspector General of any serious incidents, directly contravening required DOC procedures.

The OPPAGA report also found that a lack of job assignments and educational opportunities has resulted in excessive prisoner idleness at Gadsden. USCC is in violation of contract requirements and state law requiring that prisoners be placed in meaningful work or educational assignments. The State Auditor found that 235 of Gadsden's 768 prisoners were assigned as dorm orderlies, a position for which, according to DOC standards, only 48 are needed.

According to PLN's source, the high number of dorm orderlies does not necessarily equate with increased cleanliness. "Cleaning chemicals are watered down," she says, "and really do nothing for cleaning. Laundry is also skimping on the chemicals. Laundry comes back smelling like urine. Dorm floors go for months without being waxed. The only time they wax them is when [official] visitors are coming and they are trying to look good."

Gadsden's educational programs have suffered because of a 100-plus percent staff turnover in those positions. Enrollment in education programs is below the contracted requirement, and nearly 30 percent of the educational staff positions remain vacant. The prison is without an Educational Counselor and there is no educational testing, according to the state reports.

Although the State Auditor concludes that USCC has operated with multiple violations of its contract with the state, the company has little or no reason to comply. Enforcement of contract provisions and DOC standards has been unsuccessful because the current contract with USCC does not include any sanctions for non-compliance and non-adherence to most of the contract's provisions. Other than withholding 1% (about $9,500) of three monthly payments, because of USCC's failure to hire program staff, the DOC has not acted against USCC for its failure to comply with the specific terms of the contract. The DOC has said it will consider revising the contract to include more sanctions for non-compliance the next time the contract is up for review.

Florida spends nearly $89 million yearly on private prison contracts, which run for three-year periods. Each contract has a built in 6 percent annual cost increase clause, double what the State Auditor predicts the cost increases will be for state run prisons.

Gadsden is the only privately operated female prison in Florida. The state also has three men's private prisons, two of which hold 750 each, and one housing 1,318 men. An additional 360 juvenile offenders are held in each of three more private facilities designed for them. All total, about 5,400 (or 8 percent) of Florida's prison population is housed in private prisons, a number second only to the state of Texas.

PLN's source at Gadsden reports numerous other problems not specified in the OPPAGA reports. "There are inmates with severe mental disorders housed with population. There are active cases of TB housed in population. Culinary has prisoners with TB, hepatitis and other contagious diseases working with the food."

She also reports "affairs between officers and inmates, drugs entering the prison, and corruption." She emphasized how prison administrators go to great lengths to put on a facade for visitors and the media. "If you attempt to talk to the media when they visit," she reports, "you are threatened with lock [up in segregation]. When the media comes, [the warden] has her picks and they go before the media and say how wonderful this place is."

In a response to the State Auditor's reports, the Chief Financial Officer of USCC stated the corporation was making substantial progress in the deficiencies that had been noted.

Sources: PLN Reader Mail; State of Florida Auditor General's "Performance Audit of the Gadsden Correctional Institution," Report No. 95-48, April 1, 1996; OPPAGA Report 95-12, November 13, 1995; OPPAGA Report 95-28, January 10, 1996. Copies of the OPPAGA reports are available from: OPPAGA Report Production, P.O. Box 1735, Tallahassee, FL 32302.

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