State Politics

Fla. senators reach deal to avoid prison closures

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate’s budget chief Wednesday backed off from his proposal to close two state prisons and privatize a third in the face of mounting opposition from colleagues, the union representing prison guards and local officials.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman JD Alexander agreed to replace those cost-cutting proposals in the Senate’s budget with others designed to keep the prisons open and avoid hundreds of layoffs. The Senate then unanimously passed the spending bill (SB 2700).

Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee, who has several prisons in his Florida Panhandle district, negotiated the deal with Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Alexander’s committee last week approved a budget provision calling for the closures and privatization with the goal of saving $20 million. Inmates would have been transferred from two unnamed prisons, which would have been closed, to the new $113 million Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton, which is to be privately operated by Boca Raton-based Geo Group Inc.

The agreement still allocates $22.6 million in operating funds to open the 2,224-bed Blackwater prison but gives the Department of Corrections the flexibility to determine how to achieve agency-wide spending cuts totaling 5 percent.

“This is a great compromise,” Lawson said. “We really can’t afford to allow the facility to sit without anybody in it.”

One option would be to close dormitories or wings at several prisons. That’s what initially had been proposed by an appropriations committee that oversees prison, criminal justice and other court spending.

Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who chairs that panel, said the agency, which has nearly 30,000 employees and a turnover of about 300 every month, should be able to accomplish most staff cuts through attrition.

“The way that I read this is that there shouldn’t be any mass firings here,” Crist said.

Budget language also specifically allows the department to use privatization as a cost-cutting option although that’s not required.

The agreement also restores about 1,000 positions and shifts $16 million to Corrections from the Department of Juvenile Justice and $1 million from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Another amendment calls for a study comparing public and private prison costs.

Florida AFL-CIO President Mike Williams said he remained uncomfortable with the deal because it appears to be leading to more privatization.

“It’s not the best outcome we would have liked at this time, but we’re moving ahead,” said James Baiardi, president of the State Correctional Officers Chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Baiardi joined many of his members as well as local government and corrections officials from several Panhandle prison communities at a protest meeting Tuesday in Sneads about 42 miles west of Tallahassee. Sneads, a small town of about 2,000, is home to 640-employee Apalachee Correctional Institution, considered the most likely candidate for closure under Alexander’s proposal.

“That’s a nice little town,” Baiardi said. “I’m glad that the town ain’t been shut down.”