Florida Lawmaker Visits Prisons, Audits Private Prison Contracts
by David Reutter
In prison after prison across the state, over a period of two years, Florida state Representative David Richardson found that toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, pillows, sheets, shirts and soap were often withheld from prisoners, especially those in solitary confinement. Further, food had been denied as a form of punishment and medical conditions went untreated.
Richardson, a retired forensic auditor, has used his legislative authority to enter state prisons unannounced to view conditions without the “dog and pony show” typically provided to official guests. He presented his findings to his colleagues in the state House in April 2017 and urged them to require more accountability over Florida’s private prison contracts, offering a level of scrutiny not often seen on the floor of a legislative chamber.
“All nine contracts that I had audited had the numbers fudged,” Richardson declared moments before the House voted 89-26 for its draft of the 2017-2018 fiscal year budget.
Part of the problem, Richardson said, is that the agency in charge of monitoring private prison contracts – the Department of Management Services (DMS) – had no experience in corrections, making it susceptible to being “hoodwinked” by for-profit prison companies.
“I want one agency accountable, and we will call them when things go wrong,” Richardson said in March 2017, as the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted to shift oversight of the state’s private prisons from DMS to the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC).
In the audience sat lobbyists for private prison firms GEO Group, Management & Training Corp. and CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America). None spoke out against the bill, but they had been urging members of the committee to reject it.
“I understand why the private prison operators wouldn’t want it because for years they have had DMS hoodwinked,” Richardson said after thehearing. “We have found inflated pricing, tremendous performance problems and cost-cutting measures that were unsafe and wasting taxpayer money.”
Richardson described how the state’s private prison contracts are audited when they come to an end, but “they never have an end” as they are routinely renewed without being rebid. He spoke about how he had audited numerous contracts, made 90 prison visits, met 300 prisoners and devoted 700 hours to investigating Florida’s prison system.
“My audits have shown that the money is not being spent the way we think we’re spending it,” he said.
Richardson’s review of the FDOC occurred the same year that House Speaker Richard Corcoran and his deputies made a point of calling out “corporate welfare” and questionable contracts at two much smaller state agencies, Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.
But when Richardson addressed his legislative colleagues, his concerns about the state’s prison system were greeted with polite stares from leaders in the Republican-controlled House – and no reaction.
“What I would like to see is some provisional language in this budget that would allow more safeguards and more oversight because what I have found is that we have a lot of spending going on but we have very little oversight,” Richardson said. “Many of you may not know this, but in the entirety of the life of private prisons there has never been one financial audit of a private prison operator. Not one.”
He had just completed a review of six contracts with non-profit vendors hired to manage prison work release facilities; in 2012, Governor Rick Scott had recommended privatizing the facilities to cut costs.
The FDOC privatized the work release programs by 2014 and promised $550,000 per year in savings. But a review of the contracts led Richardson to a different conclusion.
“We are not saving a dime,” he stated, noting instead that the agencies engaged in a “shell game that perpetrated this little trick.”
When a work release prisoner is employed in the community, the work release facility keeps 55 percent of their net earnings to recover the cost of room and board, and the prisoner keeps the rest, Richardson said.
But during the recession that began in 2008, the Florida legislature seized the revenue from the FDOC’s work release programs and used it to fund other agencies and projects in general revenue. So the state’s general revenue grew but the FDOC fell further into the red. Then the equation changed when the governor and legislature decided to privatize the work release facilities.
“They gave away the general revenue,” Richardson explained. “The six facilities were bringing in $2.1 million into the state coffers every year – our share of the 55 percent of net income,” but the contracts with the vendors allowed them to keep those funds.
So rather than saving $550,000, the state was losing millions.
“How could so many people knowledgeable about these contracts not see that?” he asked. “And it’s a nice little shell game that got played because people didn’t talk about that little bucket of money.”
Adding to the problems in Florida’s prison system, a November 2015 study by a private auditor found that many of the FDOC’s operational deficiencies “can be directly or indirectly tied to the lack of an adequate work force that possesses the experience and skills to consistently carry out the mandates of the FDOC as outlined in policy and procedure.”
It was June 2016 when Richardson visited the Sumter Correctional Institution and began questioning youthful prisoners held at that facility.
“How’s your day going?” he asked one of them.
“Not very good,” was the reply. “We were just at the lunch room and a couple of people were talking and the guard told us to go dump all our food in the trash.”
The FDOC guard in question, Denzel Alexander, previously had been identified by Richardson for twice assaulting prisoners, but since he didn’t actually witness the assaults, no action had been taken.
“All officers on duty were counseled that withholding food can never be utilized as a form of discipline and that the department and facility will not condone it,” said Michelle Glady, an FDOC spokeswoman.
“I am proud of the swift action taken, but I wonder if I had not been present if the incident would have been disclosed,” Richardson wrote on his Facebook page. “Unfortunately, we still have a few bad officers, and they taint the integrity of the department and all the fine officers who serve our state with distinction.”
Richardson was on a January 19, 2017 visit to the Baker Correctional Institution in northern Florida when he found dozens of prisoners without toilet paper, toothbrushes and other supplies. He asked the warden to open the storage unit just feet away from the dorms, and they delivered hygiene products to more than 50 prisoners.
“It is behavior that is intended to dehumanize them – treating them like an animal,” Richardson said, while also noting that the warden was embarrassed. He complained to the FDOC and “they were apologetic and put out an all-points bulletin that this was wrong.”
But problems continued. During his fourth visit to the Tomoka Correctional Institution near Daytona Beach, Richardson said the situation was “deplorable.” He detailed deficiencies in 37 cells, and found one prisoner so sick he was throwing up. Another had an “open, weeping wound” that had not been treated for days. Windows in many of the dorms that lacked air conditioning wouldn’t crank open for proper ventilation. Several prisoners wore shirts and pants that were torn or threadbare.
Richardson said he had not gone public with his findings about the lack of hygiene products and other issues, hoping his reports and complaints to the FDOC would result in reforms.
“I’m not seeking publicity for myself. I’m seeking change,” he noted. “I wanted to work with them and see if they could get their problem under control and change behavior without being publicly shamed.”
But his audits of the private prison contracts apparently changed his mind.
“We have got to take a serious look into these contracts,” Richardson told other state lawmakers. “I have now audited nine contracts ... and all nine contracts that I had audited had the numbers fudged to justify privatization. And it’s time for this body and this legislature to take a serious look at how we are spending the taxpayers’ money.”
Sources: Miami Herald; Tampa Bay Times; “Study of Operations of the Florida Department of Corrections,” by the Florida Legislative Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (Nov. 2015)