Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his allies in the state legislature are pursuing a plan to privatize dozens of prisons in South Florida. Republicans claim that private prisons are more efficient and that the move would save the state millions
February 3, 2012

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his allies in the state legislature are pursuing a plan to privatize dozens of prisons in South Florida. Republicans claim that private prisons are more efficient and that the move would save the state millions of dollars. The privatization bill is facing some trouble in the state senate, including opposition from key Republicans.

Scott claims that the purpose of the privatization push is to shave 7 percent off the state budget, which perpetually comes up short since Republicans refuse to raise revenue and continue to drive the state's economy into the ground.

[State Sen. Steve] Oelrich, a long-time member of the Florida Retirement System, said he was taken aback when Scott suggested the reason the state had to save the money on its prisons was because he believes the "retirement system is broke."

"The governor's words were that we are 'lying to state employees,' '' Oelrich said. "That troubles me. I don't think that's necessarily correct."

Oelrich questioned why Scott would use that as a rationale for defending prison privatization, which is projected to save between $16 million to $30 million a year. The state's retirement fund is more than 80 percent funded, he said, a level he believes is considered high compared to other states. Bringing it up to 100 percent funding is not something advocated by actuaries, Oelrich said, and would cost billions.

"He says we're between $25 and $60 billion in unfunded liability because we've assumed a 7.5 percent accrual rate and it's only making 5 percent,'' he said. "I'm very concerned that if in fact the retirement system is broke and we can't fulfill our obligations, then the State of Florida ought to let people know that and make the decisions they ought to make."

A broad coalition of groups has come out in opposition to the plan:

No other state has initiated such an ambitious experiment as the one proposed in this legislation. Consequently, the proposal to greatly increase the number of prisons under private contract raises several issues of concern including the dubious cost saving claims, efficiency in correctional management, and the impact on public safety. Successful efforts to contain correctional costs have been achieved in a number of states in recent years through other criminal justice policy initiatives that have reduced demand for scarce correctional resources.

The groups are: ACLU of Florida, Advocare, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), Critical Resistance, Florida Justice Institute, Human Rights Defense Center, In the Public Interest, Justice Strategies, National African American Drug Policy Coalition, Inc., Ohio Justice Policy Center, Private Corrections Institute, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, The Sentencing Project, Southern Center for Human Rights, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, United Church of Christ/ Justice and Witness Ministries, United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society

The bill is likely to have a strong negative impact on prison workers:

Labor groups and current corrections officers have warned legislators that privatizing prisons will lead to staff cuts and public safety hazards.

Roberts says his prison is already operating with a limited number of staff: “We are already running at critical levels.”

“We have the same number of prisoners,” Roberts explains, “but we have less staff.”

There are also concerns that workers who are not laid off will face significant cuts to their salary, benefits or both.

According to information given to state Sen. Mike Fasano’s office from the Senate appropriations staff, their fears could be warranted. Comparing beginning salaries and benefit rates for someone who takes a job at a public prison and someone who takes a job at a prison run by one of the top three private companies shows that workers could make significantly less if their prisons were to be privatized.

Fasano is one of the most vocal opponents of the state’s privatization plan, and has introduced an amendment that would strike out the entire bill.

According to Fasano’s office, someone starting out at a public prison would, on average, make $30,800 plus benefits at a rate of 59.8 percent, which amounts to a total compensation package of $49,222.

Beginning compensation packages at Management Training Corporation, meanwhile, are a $25,085 salary plus a 30 percent benefit rate, which amounts to $32,610 in total. GEO Group starts workers at $30,356 with a 20 percent benefit rate, which amounts to a $36,427 compensation package. Corrections Corporation of America pays $22,000 with a 25 percent benefit rate, which adds up to $27,500.

Roberts says that people working in prisons “are already upset.” He explains that 3 percent was recently taken out of public employee checks for retirement, and most workers have not seen a raise in six or seven years. He says finances are already tight for him.

“If they take my wages down, I wouldn’t make my rent,” he says. “I would be homeless. I have three kids. … I would starve.”

Robert also says that the fears have already started to affect morale. ”We have lost our will to work,” he says.

The supposed benefits of privatization are a mirage as well.

Private prisons have a well-documented record of failing to save taxpayers money. An exhaustive 2007 study conducted by the University of Utah concluded that “the value of moving to a privately managed system is questionable,” while many services are often inferior at private facilities as compared to public ones.

If the savings Scott and his allies suggest are a sham, what's the real drive behind the privatization scheme? Money, of course:

(A) growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.

And a lot of the profits from these for-profit companies have found their way into Republican campaign coffers:

But while the taxpayers may not see much return on their investment, others stand to reap millions of dollars. Last year, a report issued by the Justice Policy Institute found that private prisons spent millions on lobbying to help “make money through harsh policies and longer sentences.” In 2010, the two largest private prison companies had a combined $2.9 billion in revenues, Think Progress reported.

The corporations that own and operate private prisons are not the only ones who benefit financially either. An examination of campaign finance records shows that GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, was one of the 15 largest contributors to the Florida Republican Party in 2010, and gave over $11,000 in contributions directly to the campaigns of 14 of the 20 members of the Budget Committee that approved the bill, by a vote of 14-4. Since 2006, GEO Group has spent a total of $1.3 million in campaign contributions in Florida alone.

The battle has been a dirty one, with Senate President Mike Haridopolos removing fellow Republican Mike Fasano from his leadership position on the Senate Subcommittee on Criminal & Civil Justice Appropriations because he wasn't in support of the privatization scheme. Experts were not allowed to testify in advance of the vote. Finally, the bill itself would prevent the collection of data about private prisons and their effectiveness. Why would you hide that info unless you knew it proved your arguments wrong?

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