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Florida Senate Rejects Privatization of 27 State Prisons – but Just Barely
The backdoor proviso attempt failed, however, after the Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA), which at the time represented Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) employees, filed suit challenging the prison privatization plan enacted as part of the budget bill. A circuit court judge ruled in the PBA’s favor in September 2011, finding the proviso language was “illegal without authority in violation of law.” The legislature’s appeal of that decision remains pending.
PLN’s February cover story concluded with the Republican-dominated Florida Senate considering two bills introduced in January 2012 – SB 2036 and SB 2038 – that would accomplish the same goal as the proviso language; i.e., privatizing 27 correctional facilities in South Florida, known as Region IV, that house approximately 16,000 state prisoners.
SB 2038 required the privatization of almost all FDOC Region IV facilities, with “actual cost savings to the state of at least 7 percent” and specified performance measures for the privatized prisons.
The companion bill, SB 2036, provided that cost-benefit and business case analyses submitted by state agencies in support of their legislative budget requests would not apply “to the outsourcing or privatization of agency functions expressly required by the General Appropriation Act or any other law” until after the agencies had already entered into such outsourcing or privatization contracts.
Further, SB 2036 specified that existing statutory requirements applicable to prison privatization contracts in 944.105, Florida Statutes would “not apply to a contract for the outsourcing or privatization of the operation and maintenance of correctional facilities expressly directed to be outsourced or privatized by the General Appropriation Act or any other law.”
SB 2038 and SB 2036 were introduced as committee bills and fast-tracked by the Senate leadership – Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who strongly supported the bills, assigned them to only two committees, which were chaired by other prison privatization proponents: Senators John Thrasher and J.D. Alexander. Introduced on January 13, 2012, the bills were considered by the Rules Committee just ten days later.
Meanwhile a number of organizations mounted opposition to the bills, including organized labor groups such as AF-SCME, SEIU and the Teamsters. In November 2011, FDOC employees had voted to oust the PBA and have the Teamsters represent them instead.
The Teamsters quickly issued a press release condemning the prison privatization bills, which would cost an estimated 3,800 FDOC employees their jobs. Of course they could be re-hired by the private prison companies contracted to operate Region IV facilities, but at lower wages and without state employee benefits. The Teamsters also flooded the Senate with calls expressing opposition to the bills, and ensured that FDOC employees were present to attend hearings and meet with lawmakers.
Another organization that took quick action to oppose the prison privatization effort was the Private Corrections Institute (PCI). PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann, who serves as PCI’s president, issued a press release on January 17, 2012.
“The renewed legislative effort to privatize  state prison facilities reeks of special interest peddling and a giveaway of taxpayer funds to the private prison industry,” the press release stated. “Considering there is scant evidence that private prisons in Florida have saved the state money, and the documented scandals and problems involving private prisons in the past, the repeated efforts by the legislature to privatize Region IV can best be explained as political payback.”
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, in 2010 GEO Group and its executives gave more than $705,000 to political candidates and parties in Florida, while Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) donated $138,994 – primarily to Republican causes. Further, both CCA and GEO Group made contributions to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s inaugural fund in the amounts of $5,000 and $25,000, respectively.
Since 2004, GEO has given $1.8 million to Florida political candidates, parties and committees. Since government contracts are the main source of income for GEO and CCA, this is equivalent to laundering tax dollars through the companies to lawmakers, who then award or renew such contracts. [See: PLN, Aug. 2007, p. 13].
“Basically, this recently-introduced legislation that proposes the wholesale privatization of an unprecedented number of state prisons could have been drafted by CCA or GEO Group to the extent the bills benefit private prison firms at the expense of Florida taxpayers,” Friedmann said.
PCI also issued a policy brief in January 2012 that detailed past problems with privately-run prisons, including corruption in the Correctional Privatization Commission, the agency formerly responsible for overseeing private prisons in Florida.
In a letter to state senators, PCI further noted that while the Rules Committee write-up for SB 2038 had cited “research by the Reason Foundation in support of cost savings through prison privatization, the Committee failed to note that Reason Foundation is the recipient of funding from private prison companies, including GEO Group and CCA.” In fact, according to Reason’s 2009 donor list, GEO was listed as a Platinum Level supporter while CCA was listed as a Gold Level supporter.
Despite testimony against SB 2036 and SB 2038 from a number of speakers, including private prison expert Judy Greene with Justice Strategies, as well as opposition from several Republican state senators – notably Senator Mike Fasano and Senator Paula Dockery – the Rules Committee voted in favor of the bills, which were then scheduled to be heard by the Budget Committee two days later on January 25, 2012.
Senators Fasano and Dockery questioned the estimated cost savings that might be achieved through prison privatization. Dockery obtained records from the FDOC that indicated some private prisons in Florida actually cost more to operate than state prisons – including the CCA-operated Bay Correctional Facility and Moore Haven Correctional Facility, and the GEO Group-managed South Bay Correctional Facility.
Senator Don Gaetz, who strongly supported the private prison bills, said savings of 7% would be guaranteed by law. However, that is what existing state law requires, and as noted by Senator Dockery, some privately-operated prisons in Florida are not realizing such savings.
Additionally, in another letter sent to all Florida senators, PCI wrote that “Such savings ... are entirely dependant upon the accuracy of the baseline used to calculate the state’s comparable operating costs. If the baseline is not accurate because it fails to consider all relevant factors, then the savings would be illusory.”
For example, the Orlando Sentinel reported on January 23, 2012 that the FDOC had removed all “close management” prisoners from Region IV in 2011. Close management prisoners are more expensive to incarcerate. By removing such prisoners from Region IV facilities (the ones slated for privatization), the cost to operate those facilities was artificially skewed downward for purposes of comparing per diem operating expenses at private versus public prisons.
Other senators expressed concern that if the door was opened wide for prison privatization, other state functions might be privatized. “Are we a government that is composed of for-profit corporations, that we will sell our prisons to the highest bidder for companies that make money from it?” asked Senator Maria Sachs. “It’s a slippery slope, as you’ve heard before, we could have the prison and correctional officers today, tomorrow it’ll be other folks.”
Despite vocal opposition the Senate Budget Committee passed SB 2038, the main prison privatization bill, which was placed on the Senate’s special order calendar for January 31, 2012. Unable to marshal sufficient votes to pass the legislation, however, the Senate leadership pulled it back but retained it on the special order calendar, which meant it could be brought up again at any time.
The vote breakdown was reportedly 20 for and 20 against, and a tie vote would defeat the bill. “All 20 of our votes are solid, 100 percent, don’t-want-this-to-happen opponents of the bill,” said Senator Dockery.
Senator Jack Latvala had Senate President Haridopolos promise to provide a 24-hour notice before SB 2038 was brought back to the Senate floor, which was designed to prevent the bill from being returned on short notice when oppo-nents were not present to vote against it.
This prompted a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times to remark “that Haridopolos had managed to acquire a Tallahassee reputation as the sort of chap who, if you found him sitting at the next barstool, you wouldn’t leave your change unattended while you hit the men’s room.”
Governor Scott, also a proponent of the prison privatization bills, met with two senators, Charles Dean and Steve Oelrich, both former sheriffs, in an effort to get them to drop their opposition to the legislation, without success.
“I’m not a big government guy, but there’s some things we ought to do and taking custody and control of the people we imprison is one of them,” said Oelrich, a former sheriff for Alachua County. “We investigate the cases. We arrest them and take away their freedom. We prosecute them and sentence them and now we’re going to turn them over to a private company to save money. I don’t believe in that.”
He wasn’t alone. As SB 2036 and SB 2038 advanced in the Florida Senate, a newly-formed coalition of organizations opposed to prison privatization rallied support against the bills, accompanied by extensive media coverage statewide.
The coalition, which included labor unions, criminal justice groups and faith-based organizations, sent a letter to Senate President Haridopolos on January 31, 2012, writing in “strong opposition to SB 2036 and SB 2038 because the bills would lead to an unprecedented expansion of prison privatization.” The letter, which advocated criminal justice reform efforts to reduce the state’s prison population rather than privatization, was signed by 17 organizations, including the Sentencing Project, the Florida Justice Institute, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Human Rights Defense Center (the parent organization of Prison Legal News).
Separately, the NAACP and the Tea Party also issued statements that condemned the prison privatization bills. The Tea Party had doubts that the privatization plan would save money and expressed concerns about “crony capitalism and deals that ultimately turn out bad for taxpayers,” while Dale R. Landry, president of the Tallahassee branch of the NAACP, stated that “Privatization of prisons under a corporate structure is about profit and not about safety and security.”
PCI issued another press release on February 1, 2012, noting that the prison privatization plan proposed by SB 2038 would result in potential savings of less than 1% of Florida’s total corrections budget. An analysis by the Senate Budget Committee had estimated savings of $16.5 million per year, based on the 7% cost savings mandated by the legislation. However, even if such savings were achieved they would amount to only a tiny fraction of the FDOC’s $2.2 billion annual budget.
“With an unemployment rate in Florida of almost 10 percent, putting 3,800 state employees out of work to achieve less than 1% budgetary cost savings is a poor trade-off,” observed PCI president Friedmann, who also said the estimated savings assumed there were “no cost increases at the privatized prisons in future years,” and would be “at the expense of terminating around 3,800 state employees and privatizing state prisons on a scale never before attempted in the history of the United States.”
On February 1, 2012, Senate President Haridopolos stripped Senator Fasano of his chairmanship of a budget sub-committee in retaliation for Fasano’s opposition to the private prison bills. Haridopolos justified his actions by saying Senator Fasano was not “rowing in the right direction.” Fasano, who had introduced an unsuccessful amendment that would have killed SB 2038, responded by saying, “if the loss of a chairmanship is the result of taking a stand for what is right, I wear that loss as a badge of honor.”
The pressure by Senate leaders to pass the prison privatization bills became so intense that some senators had to act as “escorts” for one of their colleagues, Senator Larcenia Bullard, who, according to the Tampa Bay Times, had been “seriously ill with a recurring heart condition” and “had been in tears after days of pressure from Senate leaders and lobbyists who wanted her to be the deciding vote” on the bills.
“It was straight out of a gangster movie,” said Senator Audrey Gibson, who stayed with Bullard to protect her from other lawmakers intent on influencing her to switch her vote. Gibson remarked that proponents of the private prison plan were “dead-set to get it through at whatever cost.” And they almost did.
SB 2038 went up for a final vote before the Florida Senate on February 14, 2012. In a last-ditch effort to pass the bill, Senate President Haridopolos postponed the vote from the morning to the afternoon, when two of the senators opposing the legislation were scheduled to be away from the Senate. Once that subterfuge became known, those senators canceled their other appointments so they could be present.
Then, following two hours of debate, the Senate voted 21 to 19 against SB 2038, killing the bill in what was described as a “rare defeat” for the Senate leadership. Senator Gary Siplin switched sides to provide the extra vote in opposition; both Republicans and Democrats voted against the legislation. “A bad bill, dressed with flimsy facts, went down to defeat,” Senator Dockery declared in victory.
“I accept the verdict of the Senate,” said Senate President Haridopolos. SB 2036 later quietly died in committee. GEO Group’s stock dropped almost 5% within one day after SB 2038 was defeated.
Although the sweeping prison privatization plan failed to pass in the Senate (no action was taken on corresponding bills in the House), Governor Scott still has the ability to expand prison privatization in Florida through an executive order. Following the defeat of SB 2036 and SB 2038, however, he has not expressed interest in doing so.
“This was not one of Governor Scott’s top priorities, but he did something where he thought we could find some significant savings. He’s disappointed to see it fail like this,” said Lane Wright, a spokesman for the governor’s office.
Opponents of Florida’s ill-advised attempt to privatize an unprecedented number of state prison facilities, however, were elated.
Sources: PCI letters and press releases, www.tampabay.com, Sun Sentinel, www.tallahassee.com, Palm Beach Post, www2.hernandotoday.com, www.wjhg.com, www.floridaindependent.com, www.firstcoastnews.com, www.inthepublicinterest.org
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