By Lloyd Dunkelberger | Herald-Tribune | January 18, 2012
TALLAHASSEE- Florida lawmakers are reviving the largest prison privatization plan in the country, with a Senate committee on Wednesday voting to file two bills that would turn over 29 correctional facilities in an 18-county region — including Southwest Florida — to private companies.
The vote by the Senate Rules Committee — which was opposed by two Democratic members — is aimed at reversing a court ruling last year that negated the Legislature’s effort to carry out the major privatization plan through the state budget.
Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, said the new legislation would “remedy” the objections raised by the courts, including the argument that lawmakers should have used separate legislation — not the budget bill — to authorize the private prisons.
Lawmakers, facing a $2 billion budget shortfall this year, are backing the private prison plan because of its potential savings, which are conservatively estimated at $18 million a year but could be more than $40 million.
Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the savings, which are mandated to be at least 7 percent of the operating cost, are “substantial” and could help fund other critical state priorities, ranging from programs for the developmentally disabled to schools.
But the plan drew heavy criticism from correctional officers and lawmakers, who also questioned a related measure that they said would shroud decisions by the Legislature to privatize an array of services in more secrecy.
The companion bill would eliminate the need for a “business plan,” which evaluates the potential savings, for privatization plans that are advanced by the Legislature.
Matt Puckett, a lobbyist representing the Police Benevolent Association, the correctional officer union that sued the state over the original privatization plan, said the business plans and other requirements were put in place six years ago to bring more accountability to the decisions.
“I don’t know why we are undoing these changes now,” Puckett said. “They were put in place so that you don’t make mistakes.”
Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Bay Harbor Island, said the provisions were too broad and could impact every state agency. “It’s very disturbing,” said Margolis, who voted against the bills.
Judith Greene, director of Justice Strategies, a New York policy group that has criticized privatization plans, said Florida’s proposal represented “an unprecedented” expansion of the use of private prisons that no other state has undertaken.
The privatization move would include 10 major prisons, including Charlotte Correctional, Desoto Correctional and Hardee Correctional. It would also include a variety of work camps, road prisons, two reception centers and a re-entry center in the 18-county region, which includes Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Greene said the expansion comes when there is little solid evidence to show “whether Florida is saving or losing money” with private prisons.
Privatization can result in problems in running a prison system because of lower pay and benefits for the correctional officers, less training and more turnover, Greene said.
But Alexander, the budget chairman, said he is convinced an expansion of private prisons will save money based in part on the state’s experience of letting private companies run seven state prisons, which Alexander said seemed to be operating at savings in the range of 10 to 15 percent.
He said turning over an entire prison region to private companies would let the state more broadly evaluate their potential, eliminating the argument that the private prisons in the past have selectively picked their inmate populations.
“I think this has the promise, contrary to what the critics say, of offering not only savings but the potential for better outcomes,” Alexander said, adding he believed it would result in fewer prisoners returning to the prisons and higher safety levels for the inmates and officers.
But the move also has the potential to disrupt the lives of some 3,800 correctional officers who work in the 18-county region.
Under the proposal, those officers would be offered new jobs at their facilities if a private company takes them over — although their pay and benefits could be cut. Correctional officers also have the right to transfer to other state facilities throughout Florida if jobs are available and they agree to move.
Reshae Cherry, a 26-year-old Charlotte correctional officer who is expecting her second child, said the privatization plan could hurt her family, since her husband is also an officer at the same state prison.
“We spend a lot of nights worrying about how we might deal with this privatization and my situation is not unique,” she said.
She said the correctional officers have already faced many challenges, including no pay raises since she began work six years ago.
“I want to keep food on my table. I want to have a good doctor for my children to go to,” she said. “I want to continue to serve the department. I’m truly proud of what I do.”
With the Rules Committee’s approval of the bills on Wednesday, the bills will next be sent by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, to additional committees where the privatization plan will face further debate.