by David M. Reutter
In a show of continued support for privately-operated prisons, the Florida legislature considered giving the state’s for-profit prison contractors a $4 million raise.
The GEO Group, MTC and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, have had contracts to operate prisons in Florida since the 1990s. While state law requires a seven percent savings to comparable public prisons, that cost analysis is flawed and not given serious consideration. [See: PLN, Jan. 2018, p.52; March 2011, p.36].
The most important consideration is apparently campaign contributions. The GEO Group, which operates four facilities in Florida, is a major contributor to the Republican Party and state GOP candidates. In 2016 alone the company gave almost $2 million in political donations, including $40,000 to Senate President Joe Negron and $100,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Committee.
State Senator Jeff Brandes, who chairs the Criminal Justice Budget Committee, defended the increase in payments to for-profit prison firms as being a matter of fairness.
“The issue here is that a couple of years ago we raised salaries for correctional officers in our public facilities, but we never extended that pay increase to correctional officers in private facilities,” he said.
That raise was five percent; it was the first wage increase for state prison guards in about eight years. Senator Negron, who supported the increased private prison payments, didn’t explain why companies like GEO couldn’t raise employee wages themselves, rather than have the state do so using public, taxpayer funds.
“It’s a slap in the face,” said one state prison guard who requested anonymity. “Plus, we were just told we will not see another raise for ten years.”
The same guard said one of the things the Sumter Correctional Institution is always “gigged for” when the American Correctional Association arrives to accredit the prison is the “subpar pay scale.”
The starting salary for Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) guards is around $33,000 per year. The prison system has been at critically low staffing levels, resulting in increased staff turnover and cuts in programming and recreation. In recent years, the department has averaged a $2.2 billion budget to house about 98,000 prisoners statewide, including in private prisons.
At the Sumter Correctional Institution, roofs are patched with new shingles rather than having a new roof installed. Yet the legislature was prepared to appropriate public funds for staff raises at privately-operated prisons.
Florida’s $89 billion budget passed the legislature in March 2018 and was signed by the governor on March 16. The original bill to give an additional $4 million to private prison firms died in committee (HB 3745); however, another bill, HB 3837, which made it into the final budget, appropriated $6.96 million to the Bay, Moore Haven, South Bay and Blackwater River Correctional Facilities – all operated by GEO Group – “for the provision of enhanced in-prison and post-release recidivism reduction programs.” In other words, GEO still got paid.
While it remains to be seen whether that money translates to increased wages for the company’s employees, one thing is certain: Florida lawmakers have shown private prison firms the value – and financial returns – of making campaign contributions.
Sources: www.tampabay.com, www.floridapolitics.com, www.flsenate.gov
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