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Florida to Allow Exportation of Prisoners to Other States

by David M. Reutter

Florida lawmakers have handed a victory to the private prison industry by passing a bill (SB 1722) that allows Florida prisoners to be exported to out-of-state facilities, which are mostly privately-operated. When Governor Charlie Crist signed the bill into law in June 2009, Florida joined 15 other states that permit their prisoners to be housed far from home en masse.

“It’s a safety valve,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican State Senator Victor Crist (no relationship to the governor). “This is not a mandate. It’s a passive safety net.” That safety valve, said Governor Crist, is available in case the state needs to avoid releasing prisoners early due to overcrowding.

Whether and when Florida begins shipping prisoners out-of-state will depend on how long the economic downturn continues. In late 2008, Florida became the third state to reach a prison population in excess of 100,000 prisoners. Currently there are 106,000 available beds in the state prison system, with over 5,000 unused. A 3,300-bed facility in Suwannee County was built but has not been opened due to budgetary constraints.

Budget problems caused the Florida legislature to end planned prison construction to meet an expected need for 124,000 beds by 2014. The prisoner export law was passed as a result of lobbying by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which refers to itself as “the leader in out-of-state housing” on its website.

CCA urged the legislature, without success, to pass the prisoner export law last year. “This is not a new issue,” said Matt Bryan, CCA’s Tallahassee lobbyist. “This gives the state another option to deal with a potential rapid influx of inmates.”

It also gives CCA an opportunity to fill thousands of empty beds in the company’s more than 60 prisons spread throughout the nation. PLN readers will recall our previous coverage of riots, abuse and deplorable conditions at CCA facilities. [See, e.g., PLN, Oct. 2009, p.40; April 2009, p.34; June 2008, p.10; May 2008, p.28].

There is a simple reason for such conditions and abuses. “They’re for profit. Their staff is not the most well trained. They cut corners in the programs they say they will offer,” said Matt Puckett of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a union that represents state prison guards.

The new prisoner export law is not popular with prison administrators, either, including Florida Dept. of Corrections (FDOC) Secretary Walter A. McNeil. “Secretary McNeil has concerns about placing prisoners out of state. He believes removing inmates further from their communities and families undermines the goal of reducing recidivism,” said FDOC spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff.

The bottom line, however, will likely prevail. Rather than building more state prisons at a cost of $100 million each, Florida can simply ship its prisoners to privately-operated facilities in other states under the philosophy of out of sight, out of mind.

Sources: WCTV, Associated Press, St. Petersburg Times

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