Florida: Private Prison Company Allowed to Overcharge State, Mistreat Prisoners
by David M. Reutter
An audit personally overseen by Florida state Rep. David Richardson concluded the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) had approved a pricing scheme that allowed Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), now known as CoreCivic, to operate the Lake City Correctional Facility (LCCF) at a significantly higher cost than if the state had run the prison itself.
Other reports by Rep. Richardson have led to staff changes at the privately-managed Gadsden Correctional Facility for women and the closure of the Lancaster Correctional Institution (LCI) for youthful offenders.
Since Governor Rick Scott began a drive to privatize prison operations – trying to make good on a promise from his successful 2010 campaign to trim $1 billion from the state’s corrections budget – Richardson has visited some 70 Florida prisons under a law that allows state legislators to enter a facility at any time for a review and inspection.
As recently reported in PLN, Richardson began visiting prisons housing youths after reading media reports of rampant abuse and violence. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.22]. That investigation led to LCI’s closure.
Since then, Rep. Richardson’s work has turned into a one-man quest to bring accountability to Florida’s seven privately-operated prisons, which house about one-tenth of the state’s roughly 98,000 prisoners at an annual cost of $142 million.
After visiting LCCF on October 22, 2015, Richardson asked officials from the state’s Department of Management Services (DMS) – which oversees the private contracts – to brief him on how CCA was compensated to operate the 894-bed facility. The original contract was awarded on July 31, 2009 and has been renewed and extended since that time.
Rep. Richardson was astounded by what he found.
“The award of this contract under the terms and conditions provided was a colossal government failure,” he wrote in a nine-page report released on January 10, 2017. “It is surprising that so many government employees and entities could be involved in these matters and the price estimating trickery went undetected.”
Florida law requires a minimum 7 percent cost savings from the operation of a similar state prison prior to the award of a private prison contract. But as PLN has reported, this sort of comparison is rarely possible due to the difficulties in comparing costs at public and privately-operated prisons. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.1; Feb. 2012, p.1; March 2011, p.36].
“An argument could be made that there is no similar public [FDOC] institution because the Lake City facility is modern, entirely enclosed, under one roof,” Richardson wrote. “Clearly, the Lake City facility requires less time to move about the entire premises when compared to a facility situated on a large campus and including many different buildings.”
In making its comparison, the FDOC used the now-shuttered Brevard Correctional Institution, which housed youthful offenders sentenced as adults. It was closed due to its antiquated facilities and high operational costs. A basis comparison of $50.21 per prisoner per day was approved, but the state’s 2009 contract with CCA provided an adjusted per diem rate of $63.66.
Rep. Richardson, a forensic accountant, noted inappropriate cost adjustments for air conditioning, support positions for FDOC monitoring, educational programming, substance abuse programs and behavioral-transition programming. In most cases, the FDOC became aware there was “gross overstatement” of costs, but no action was taken to adjust the price of the contract even when it was extended.
“To say the award of this contract and the use of a private prison contractor to operate this facility saved Florida taxpayers is a complete farce,” Richardson wrote. “It represents nothing more than government waste and abuse.”
He estimated that CCA had overcharged the state $16 million in the years it had operated LCCF, and requested that Governor Scott’s Chief Inspector General, Melinda Miguel, conduct a full investigation of the contract for LCCF and other private prisons in Florida.
This was not the first time the FDOC has paid more than it should to a private prison company. In November 2007, PLN reported that CCA and GEO Group were overpaid by at least $4.5 million for vacant job positions and maintenance that was never performed; the companies paid pennies on the dollar to resolve the overbilling.
Since his report on LCCF, Richardson released an audit in March 2017 regarding the Gadsden Correctional Facility (GCF) in the northern Florida town of Quincy. The medium-security prison, which houses 1,544 female prisoners, is the state’s only facility operated by Management & Training Corp. (MTC).
During a pair of surprise visits in February 2017, accompanied by officials from the FDOC and DMS, Richardson said he found prisoners in cells with a temperature of just 55 degrees. Some had no hot water. Medical care was withheld in some cases and poorly-provided when not withheld – Richardson noted a tooth extraction was performed without sedation. There were also allegations from prisoners that black guards displayed racial bias in meting out harsher punishment to white prisoners, while other guards remained on the job despite having sex with prisoners – sometimes resulting in pregnancy.
“[MTC] is not saving the state money because they are more efficient,” Rep. Richardson said in his report. “[They] are saving money as a contractor by denying goods and services to the inmates.”
At the same time, Richardson asked the governor to remove the warden and security chief in order “to restore order and reverse what I can only describe as a loss of institutional control.” He added, “While some of the concerns stem from much-needed infrastructure repairs, other concerns stem from what appears to be overly-aggressive contractor cost-cutting measures that have resulted in conditions that affect inmate health and safety.”
FDOC spokeswoman Ashley Cook referred questions to DMS, whose spokeswoman, Maggie Mickler, responded, “[while] maintenance work is ongoing, conditions at [GCF] are improving.”
MTC’s communications director, Issa Arnita, said the company was “not aware of any emergency action” required by Richardson’s findings. The lawmaker disagreed. In one GCF dorm, he found 284 female prisoners housed for months without heat or hot water when septic tanks overflowed and bathrooms flooded. Besides sanitation and medical care, his review found that MTC also withheld educational supplies from GCF prisoners.
“I had one [program] teacher say under her breath to me, ‘Please fix this place,’” he reported. “These [prisoners] are treated poorly, and it all ties back to saving money.”
After Rep. Richardson’s report was released, the warden at GCF resigned and MTC merely promised to address the concerns he raised. Richardson suspected that the company’s political clout was connected to the lack of remedial action by the state.
“Let me say, I absolutely think there’s a nexus between political contributions and the fact that there has been no meaningful results concerning my audits,” he said.
While discussing his investigation at a legislative hearing in Tallahassee, he noticed lobbyists for the private prison contractors standing mutely by, content to let their presence speak for itself to other lawmakers in the room.
Since 2015, according to Richardson, he has spoken with “hundreds” of prisoners while looking over the financial reports of privately-operated state prisons and work-release programs. He said prisoners have reported trouble getting essentials like hot water and even food, though the FDOC sends its lowest-risk prisoners to the privately-run facilities.
Rep. Richardson has introduced legislation to move oversight responsibility for private prison contracts from DMS to the FDOC. The bill has not advanced in the Republican-controlled legislature, however.
Sources: Miami Herald, www.tampabay.com