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

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The GEO Group declined the Weekly’s request for comment, but in a recent conference call, it was clear that the company was excited about the prospects for growth in its home state. “I think the Florida opportunity is several hundreds of millions,” said Brian Evans, GEO Group’s chief financial officer, adding that it will be among “the largest opportunities we’ve ever seen in the history of our industry.”

GEO has powerful friends in the Florida legislature to thank for that. At the beginning of this year’s session, the House had proposed that only prisons in Miami-Dade and Broward counties be privatized, while the Senate pushed for the wholesale privatization of Department of Corrections facilities in 18 counties. In the end, there was no compromise – the Senate’s bill won. In addition, according to State Sen. Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey), the Senate’s Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations had hoped to cut payments to private prison operators by 5 percent; the corresponding House committee had aimed to slash payments by 12 percent. In the end, Fasano says, “not one dime” was cut. And despite having a budget of $29.7 billion dollars under its purview, the House’s Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee found the $717,680 budget of the Correctional Medical Authority – the only independent state agency monitoring health care in the state’s prisons – to be an unnecessary expense. The program was eliminated at the same time that the entirety of the state’s prison health care system was offered to private vendors. (GEO Care, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the GEO Group, is considered well-positioned to take many of those contracts.)

“I don’t think it’s any coincidence,” says Rep. Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach) of the timing. “It’s a corporate-led legislature. And this year, probably in every single aspect of the budget, was a giveaway to corporations.”

The GEO Group funneled $680,500 into the coffers of the Florida Republican party – which dominates the legislature – during the 2010 election cycle.

The GEO Group also spent somewhere between $800,000 and $1.37 million on Florida lobbyists last year; among them is Ron Book, who is well-connected in Tallahassee to an almost legendary degree. Though Book won’t comment on the nature of his meetings with legislators, he offers a hopeful view of the experiment to come: “I think the state of Florida is in a position to save a lot of money in the corrections arena, and for the first time in history, do an apples-to-apples comparison of the public sector versus the private sector and see who does it better.”

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