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Florida Paradox of Prisons, Politics and Profits

For the past three years the Florida state legislature has surfed the get-tough wave, enacting laws to clamp down on Florida's 65,000 state prisoners. They have enacted laws to remove weights and recreation equipment, eliminate funding for prison TV sets, and were quick to follow Alabama's lead in resurrecting chain gangs.

Though state politicians garnered much acclaim from "No TVs in prison" sound bites two years ago, the reality of the get tough measures doesn't jibe with the political rhetoric. The state is forbidden to spend money on new TV sets for prisons, but prisoners still watch old sets that the state pays to have repaired.

Florida's deputy corrections secretary, William Thurber, acknowledges the department's interpretation has not always matched what lawmakers say they had in mind. But he said he sees the department's job as complying with the law while keeping safety risks to a minimum, adding that TVs are one of the cheapest methods he knows of keeping prisoners occupied, referring to them a "management tool."

New state prisons also manage to escape the letter of the law on televisions and weights. Though they cannot buy new equipment, prison officials point out that they don't turn down equipment that happens to be donated, or "surplus equipment" from other state prisons.

Florida's private prisons don't have to be so coy, however, in providing "management tools" for their prisoners. It turns out that privately run prisons in the state are exempt from the get-tough state laws that say, "The Department of Corrections shall..."

State legislators turned to private prisons in order to save money, and have so far relinquished about ten percent of the state prisoner population to the control of private firms. But the private prison corporations need to have "effective management tools" in order to keep the number of guards down -- to save money. So private prisons have TVs and weights galore. Some even boast air conditioning. And chain gangs? Not for private prisons.

State senator Charlie Crist, dubbed "Chain Gang Charlie" when he spearheaded the 1995 campaign for Florida's chain gangs, also supported privatizing some prisons. But he said he's disappointed that prisoners in the corporate-run institutions are getting so many amenities. "I want to replace play with work," says Crist. But so far he and other lawmakers have done nothing to change the different standards for public and private prisons.

Instead, Crist and others are surfing this year's political wave of get-tough rhetoric and pushing for ever-tougher provisions. This year "Chain Gang Charlie" introduced a follow-up chain gang bill that specifically spells out tougher provisions: Chain gangs must be comprised of at least five "violent offenders," chained to each other, and set to work along major highways where the public can readily see them. The measure does not have DOC support.

"The biggest issue," says Thurber of the DOC, "is whether we want dangerous prisoners that close to the public." If the bill passes, Florida would be the only state to shackle prisoners together. Last year Alabama discontinued the practice after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed litigation challenging the practice.

Crist also wants prisoners to work 40 hours per week. Prison officials say that would be fine, if the state comes up with the money to run the additional work programs.

Another state lawmaker, Bob Brooks, introduced a bill to take away prisoners' cigarettes. Other states, though, have done so with disastrous results. Neighboring state Georgia gave up such a ban last year amid rampant contraband and discipline problems. Some guards reportedly made as much money selling cigarettes as they were paid in salary.

Few lawmakers are willing to publicly speak out against the get-tough measures. Democrat George Crady is one of those few. "It may not be politically popular to say this," said Crady, "but if you take away all of [prisoners'] privileges, it makes them antagonistic and you have to hire more guards to watch them."

Rep. Crady's statement illuminates the basic paradox of prisons, politics, and management costs -- a paradox not faced by Florida's private prisons, and one which Florida lawmakers have yet to grasp.

Palm Beach Post

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