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Florida Work Release Prisoners Ripped Off by Private Transport Company

Florida Work Release Prisoners Ripped Off
by Private Transport Company

by David M. Reutter

In response to a new law, effective Oc-tober 1, 2003, that prohibited state prisoners from driving state vehicles, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) hurriedly entered into a no bid contract with Sunshine Transportation to transport its work release prisoners to and from their employment.

FDOC's work release programs allow prisoners to work up to twelve months in the community before they are released. While in the program, prisoners live in minimum security dormitories in the community. In turn, they contribute 45% of their income to pay the FDOC for their housing costs and ten percent goes to a personal savings account to be given to them upon their release. The transportation costs charged by Sunshine Transportation were automatically deducted from whatever wages were left.

Sunshine Transportation refused to take the contract unless it was guaranteed a minimum number of prisoner passengers. The company was chosen because it was the only company that agreed to provide van service statewide. To facilitate the contract, FDOC officials sent letters to all local work release programs "encouraging" them to sign the agreement with Sunshine Transportation. Local officials then told work release prisoners they were no longer allowed to walk, carpool or take public transportation to work.

Sunshine Transportation then charged prisoners between $45 and $55 per week, depending on mileage, for the transportation. A prisoner at a suburban West Palm Beach work release center, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said he told officials he could not afford the rates. Instead, he and other prisoner employees at a Publix supermarket wanted to go to their jobs with $35 monthly passes on Palm Tran buses. Guards at the work release center told him to pay the $200 monthly fee to use the Sunshine Transportation vans or he would be sent back to a maximum security prison in Belle Glade to serve the remainder of his sentence.

A Palm Beach Post investigation revealed that the owner of Sunshine Transportation, John Michael Stefanski, was himself released from prison in 1999 for stealing $77,465 from the Lake County RV park he managed in 1999. When initiating dealings with the FDOC, Stefanski used an alias and gave his address as a vacant lot. When he began doing business with the FDOC, he changed the Division of Corporations registry of the company from his name to that of his wife, June Parr.

The law prohibiting prisoners from driving state vehicles was enacted after a prisoner who did not have a driver's license was pulled over for speeding in a state owned van. The new law clearly states work release prisoners are required to find their own rides, not pay hefty fees to a private company whether they want the service or not, said the bill's sponsor, Senator Alex Villalobos. "The intent was never to outsource anything. The intent was to put an end to taxpayers paying for chauffeurs for these guys," he said. In 2002 the FDOC spent $5 million maintaining vans driven by prisoners.

On October 20, 2003, FDOC terminated its connections with Sunshine Transportation. It advised prisoners the van service fees are optional and they have the choice of getting to work on foot, bicycle, or via public transportation. FDOC's actions have bankrupted Sunshine Transportation and the company left its employees in the lurch.

In September, 2003, Stefanski canvassed state unemployment offices, offering immediate employment for drivers at $60 per day. Because the FDOC was Sunshine's only customer, those drivers are now without a job. By November 28, 2003, many of those employees were still waiting to be paid. Most were owed between $600 and $1,000. Driver John McKeon's first, and only, check from Sunshine Transportation bounced when he cashed it. Although the drivers performed a service for the state, FDOC says it will not help them receive payment because it is a private dispute between the drivers and Sunshine transportation. Bank records show prisoners were billed for the van service through October 21, 2003, which begs the question of where did the money go?

Stefanski himelf may need prison transportation services in the near future. On September 29, 2003, he was in court for endorsing and depositing worthless checks at a Pasco county Bank of America in January, 2002.

FDOC spokesman Dan Steele said the FDOC chose Sunshine Transportation because it "wanted someone to be accountable about the inmates." FDOC however, in choosing Sunshine Transportation skipped required background checks on the company owners. The FDOC also did not seek bids for the contract because it said prisoners, not taxpayers, had to pay the bill. That prisoners in work release pay taxes seems to be immaterial, to say nothing of accountability by FDOC contractors.

FDOC's actions in this matter exhibit the current national trend towards privatizing prison related operations and filling the coffers of corporate crooks and conmen with no oversight or critical analysis of the service being provided nor even basic monitoring of the companies who win these sweetheart deals.

Source: Palm Beach Post

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