Prison plan assailed as 'sneaky,' misleading
Palm Beach Post
Prison plan assailed as 'sneaky,' misleading
By DARA KAM
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 10:13 p.m. Saturday, March 27, 2010
Posted: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 27, 2010
After repeatedly emphasizing his commitment to "open and transparent" government during a committee meeting Thursday evening, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander attached a last-minute prison-privatization amendment to the state's spending bill without any warning to anyone it would affect, including the Department of Corrections.
Alexander's proposal to open a privately run prison near the Blackwater River in the Panhandle would shutter at least two state-run prisons and put 639 prison guards out of work, the Lakeland Republican told the committee.
His plan also would privatize an unidentified existing 1,350-bed prison, bringing the number of guards who would get pink slips up to 1,400, according to the amendment.
Alexander says that shutting down prisons to fill a 2,224-bed facility to be run by Boca Raton-based Geo Group would save the state about $20 million a year.
And it would put into use the state-of-the-art, energy-efficient Blackwater prison the state paid Geo $110 million to build near Milton in a deal slipped into the 2008 budget by state Rep. Ray Sansom before he became House speaker. Sansom later stepped down from that position in disgrace.
But corrections officials object to the plan and say Alexander overestimates the state's potential savings by going private.
Geo is now negotiating with the Department of Management Services to run Blackwater, but with a major hitch: The state doesn't have enough inmates to fill it without closing other prisons.
That's because the state overestimated how many inmates would be incarcerated and the prison population is declining despite historically high unemployment.
Alexander based his estimate on a $65-a-day rate for inmates in state-run prisons and $41 a day that Geo says it can charge for Blackwater, a savings of $24 a day for each of the 2,224 inmates who would be housed at the facility.
But corrections officials say the savings would be about $9 million - less than half Alexander's $20 million estimate - because their average daily rate is $52 while the private prison's costs would depend on what kind of inmates were locked up at Blackwater.
"We don't believe this is the right way to open Blackwater," said DOC spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.
Blackwater was originally supposed to house mentally ill and seriously sick inmates who cost more to care for, but documents show that the state is now negotiating with Geo to care for inmates who are the cheapest and easiest to supervise.
"As discussed earlier today, we wanted to provide you with a revised pricing for the Blackwater Facility if it were to house 2,224 M-1/M-2/S-1 inmates," an unidentified Geo official wrote on March 19 to Michael Weber, chief of private prison monitoring at the Department of Management Services.
M-1, M-2 and S-1 inmates are relatively healthy and have no mental health issues.
The $41-a-day price goes up to $45 if the 2,224-bed facility does not run at full capacity, according to the e-mail.
But DMS spokeswoman Linda McDonald declined to say who would run Blackwater because negotiations aren't finished.
And she would not say what type of inmates would be housed there.
"That is not a decision that DMS makes. Ultimately it could be the legislature, but DOC is certainly involved, too," McDonald said.
Plessinger said it is unlikely that all the inmates from one prison could be transferred to Blackwater because most prisons have a mix of classes of prisoners. She also said corrections officials have no idea which prisons will be shut down.
Deal 'sneaky,' some say
Alexander's late-filed amendment is the latest twist in a deal worked out in secrecy for at least two years since Sansom set it into motion.
Sansom resigned his speakership in 2009 after being indicted on charges including grand theft related to a deal he tucked into the 2008 budget. He is facing trial on charges of steering tax money to build a jet hangar for developer Jay Odom, who donated nearly $1 million to Sansom and the state Republican Party, at a Panhandle college that hired him the day he became speaker.
In the same budget, the Santa Rosa County Republican also slipped in a $110 million appropriation to build a private prison in his home county.
Alexander's privatization plan was never discussed during the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee meetings where prison spending is usually decided.
The committee chairman, Victor Crist, voted against the amendment Thursday. He said the potential savings by privatizing the prisons could not only put people out of work but also devastate the rural communities in which the prisons are based.
"They generally are the primary if not the only employer there. If you shut it down, you could be shutting down a town. All of a sudden, everyone there could be out of work," said Crist, R-Tampa. "How do they sell their homes? How do they relocate even if they got a job with a private prison 300 miles away?"
And, Crist said, the laid-off prison guards - whose annual salaries average between $30,000 and $35,000 - could wind up costing the state more if they sign up for state services for the unemployed.
"Sometimes a dollar saved upfront could cost you two dollars behind," he said.
Alexander said he introduced the amendment because Crist refused to do so and as Senate budget chairman he wants to save money on prisons to help close a $3.2 billion spending gap.
"Many states have reduced their incarceration costs by using privatization," said Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
He estimated Florida could save up to $700 million a year by privatizing each of its 62 prisons.
But Police Benevolent Association President Jim Baiardi said Alexander kept his plan quiet to avoid public debate on the controversial issue.
"It's been sneaky. Very sneaky. It's almost like it's been done in the dead of the night. So much for open government," Baiardi said, calling it a giveaway for Geo.
"I don't understand how they can say that," Alexander said. "The reality is we've got a brand-new prison that the state directed and used taxpayers' monies to build. I think putting that prison online, saving the money, saving the maintenance costs, is something that only makes good financial sense for the people of Florida."