Florida lawmakers are poised to make dramatic changes to the state’s prison system, turning over as many as 14 prisons to private companies in hopes of trimming the cost of housing the state’s criminals.
But as the Legislature moves aggressively to expand the reach of private prisons, fundamental questions remain unanswered. Such as: Do private prisons really save Florida taxpayers money? And if so, how much cheaper are they?
Florida has been experimenting with private prisons for 16 years, with almost 10 percent of the state’s 102,000 inmates now held in seven private facilities.
The state agency that oversees these prisons says they will save taxpayers almost $90 million over the next three years. But state financial analysts say they cannot show with any certainty how much money they save over state-run prisons.
At a Senate hearing in February, legislative analyst Byron Brown said differences in how public and private prisons operate and account for expenses “limit the conclusiveness” of any cost comparisons.
“There’s never apples to apples,” Brown told law- makers.
While the benefits of prison privatization may be hard to see, the problems have been obvious:
Over the years, the arrangement has been marred by mismanagement by state monitors, lax contracts, overbilling by prison contractors, a corruption investigation, and a legal loophole that allowed sexual misconduct in private facilities to go unpunished.
The Police Benevolent Association, which represents state corrections officers, said the privatization plan could put prison security at risk, with the lower wages of private prisons forcing out veteran workers and increasing staff turnover and vacancies.
More than 4,600 corrections jobs could get wiped off the state payroll under one legislative proposal.
“Their whole business model is to save money, and you save money on employees,” said Ken Kopczynski, a PBA lobbyist in Tallahassee. “If you have high turnover, that can turn into major problems.”
Critics also say the plan to expand prison privatization is aimed at rewarding an industry that donates generously to the state Republican Party.
Since 2001, the Florida GOP has received more than $1.5 million from the two largest prison contractors and their affiliates, records show.
More than $1 million of that has come from The GEO Group of Boca Raton -- formerly known as Wackenhut -- which manages two of the state’s private prisons.
Supporters say state oversight of the private prisons has improved in recent years, and inspections show that private prisons are no less secure than those run by the state’s Department of Corrections.
The change is needed, backers say, to rein in the prison system’s budget -- which totaled $2.3 billion last year -- at a time of mammoth deficits.
In the most ambitious proposal, the Senate’s budget chief, J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, wants to give private contractors control over all the Department of Corrections facilities in 18 counties south of Orlando, including prisons and work camps in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties.
The DOC has more than 4,600 employees in this region, with operating costs of about $391 million last year. Alexander wants the whole area put up for bid to any vendors who can provide at least 7 percent in savings -- or $27 million less per year than the current cost.
By privatizing an entire region, rather than individual prisons, “we could more definitely answer the question of whether there is cost savings,” Alexander said.
He said he expects the “vast majority” of corrections staffers in the region will be re-hired by the private contractors.
A more modest plan in the House of Representatives would transfer only the corrections facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward -- a list that includes six prisons and reception centers -- to private vendors.
The House proposal also would put private companies in charge of the felony probation system in Miami-Dade and Broward -- a plan adamantly opposed by the PBA.
A likely bidder under either plan is The GEO Group, which, in addition to running prisons, recently purchased a company that monitors criminals on probation.
According to a recent report to shareholders, the company seeks to expand its business to manage “the full lifecycle of an offender from arraignment to reintegration into the community, which we refer to as the corrections lifecycle.”