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Privacy policy

Florida prepares to hand over management of many of its prisons to private corporations

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According to Tom Jones, a Tallahassee attorney who monitored prisons in the 1990s for the state’s now-defunct Correctional Privatization Commission, says he doubts that handing over South Florida’s facilities to private vendors will result in significant cost savings. The state’s oldest private prison, Gadsden, opened in 1995, while the oldest public facility to be bid out for privatization, Homestead, opened in 1976. There are a lot of “nooks and crannies” in older facilities, Jones says, which means they require more staff – and therefore more money – to monitor properly. “I think legislators should be careful in thinking that the private companies running these newer, efficient facilities can go into an inefficiently designed state facility and save boatloads of money,” he says. “To me, that’s a bit of a leap.”

Corrections Corporation of America spokesman Steven Owen is confident that his company can still supervise inmates more cheaply without the luxury of a custom-designed building. “We would welcome the opportunity to bring new efficiencies to existing state facilities,” Owen writes in an email to the Orlando Weekly.

One place the private operators can cut costs is in staff benefits. State correctional officers receive handsome defined-benefit packages from the Florida Retirement System, which includes additional compensation for taking on the “special risk” of working in the prison environment; private operators only offer standard 401(k) plans to their employees.

These slimmer benefit packages, privatization opponents say, mean that the companies are more likely to hire from the bottom of the barrel, which can have a direct impact on prison safety. For instance, Gadsden – a prison managed by CCA until last year – saw four employees fired between November 2008 and July 2009 for having inappropriate relationships with inmates. (One was also charged with sexual battery.) On the other hand, Hernando Correctional Institution, which the DOC regards as the most comparable public prison to Gadsden, has only seen one employee fired since 2006 for the same reason. The state’s former Department of Corrections secretary, Jim McDonough, who was hastily installed into the troubled department in 2006, recalls that private companies’ hiring standards stood as a bulwark against his goal of weeding out corrupt employees. “A lot of those that I let go reappeared in the ranks of the privates,” McDonough says. “At one point, I asked the privates to stop hiring the people I was firing.”

The GEO Group has also had issues with staff in its Florida facilities: Roughly a month and a half after its Graceville prison opened in September 2007, an employee was arrested when crack cocaine was found in his car. A little more than two months later, the prison’s warden resigned, citing “the stress and demands of the job,” according to the Jackson County Floridian. In March of last year, an inmate at Graceville died in a fight with another inmate. The state handed the facility over to CCA the following month, which meant that employees had to reapply for their jobs.

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