by David M. Reutter
Despite having ordered a criminal investigation into its private prison contractors, the Florida Legislature and Governor Charlie Crist have enacted legislation that specifies those same companies are the only ones that can bid on expanding current prisons or building new correctional facilities.
The criminal investigation, conducted by the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement (FDLE), resulted after two state audits found that Florida had overpaid the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) more than $4.5 million for vacant job positions and maintenance that was never performed. GEO settled with the state for $402,541, literally pennies on the dollar, while as of September, 2007 the state was still negotiating with CCA over $3.6 million in payments. [See: PLN, June 2007, p.32]. The FDLE investigation found no criminal wrongdoing.
To address its continually burgeoning prison population, Florida is planning to build more beds. The state's 2007 budget calls for 384 new beds at a medium-security prison, which is estimated to cost between $15 and $20 million. The budget limits the prison expansion to companies that currently contract with the state, which are GEO and CCA.
The state further plans to build three new "work camp" prisons, each with 432 beds, for a total of 1,296 beds. It is estimated those facilities will cost $9 million each. A light budget year is blamed for limiting bids to current contractors.
"It would be nice to have options for new vendors that may not be in the process, because that provides for better competition," said Senator Victor Crist (R-Tampa), who had originally called for the criminal investigation. "But toward the end of the budgeting process, when money was very tight, we decided to go ahead and just award new beds to existing sites because it's cheaper."
To some it's a credibility issue. "They've got issues with these vendors and concerns with some of the things they've done in the past, and yet they're giving them more beds," said Ken Kopczynski, a lobbyist for the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Executive Director of the Private Corrections Institute, an anti-private prison organization.
Kopczynski has filed a qui tam action against GEO and CCA that seeks to reclaim some of the misappropriated state funds.
Through its subsidiary, GEO Care, the GEO Group has jumped on another opportunity to house Florida prisoners. GEO Care won a contract in February 2007 to operate the Treasure Coast Center (TCC). TCC is a 175-bed facility in Martin County, the former home of Florida's Civil Commitment Center for sex offenders who have completed their criminal sentences. The facility will now house prisoners who are mentally unfit for trial or who have been found guilty of crimes by mental defect.
Under Florida law, jail prisoners who are unfit for trial must be taken into the custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) within 15 days for care at a psychiatric hospital. As of November 2006 more than 300 such prisoners existed, and about 75 percent had been languishing in county jails for months awaiting treatment.
In 2007, Florida lawmakers provided DCF with $16 million to resolve the backlog. Since then, GEO Care has contracted to operate both TCC and the South Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center in Miami. GEO Care officials say the company plans to have ?residents? at the centers restored to competency in four months, on average.
The real question is whether the for-profit firm will find a way to reap extra payments from the state. Such was the case when GEO and CCA were overpaid $4.5 million for vacant jobs and unperformed services, according to state audits. Florida officials vow that such price-gouging will not happen again. However, considering that state lawmakers receive campaign contributions from both GEO and CCA, one must wonder which fox is watching the henhouse.
Sources: St. Petersburg Times, Palm Beach Post, www.tallahassee.com
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