Prison workers decry privatizationby Dara Kam | January 23rd, 2012
Emotional pleas and threats of questionable savings and a danger to public safety failed to move an elite group of senators who gave preliminary approval to a sweeping prison privatization plan struck down by a judge last year.
Dozens of prison workers from throughout the state packed the Senate Rules Committee and testified for more than two hours on a fast-tracked proposal (SB 2038), pleading with the panel to slow down and warning that the savings for the state from outsourcing are overstated.
The privatization effort coincides with a Department of Corrections decision to shut down seven prisons and other facilities, doubling the prison workers’ worries.
Amanda Abers, 28, told the committee she moved from Minnesota to Florida a year ago to work at Indian River Correctional, a youth offender prison slated for closure.
“Vero Beach is not a big area. This is going to hit the economy very, very hard. You’re putting me out on the street plus their spouses, their kids, everybody,” she said.
Senate budget chief JD Alexander, who included the privatization in the budget last year and sponsor of the proposal, said the outsourcing will force the department to reexamine its spending and questioned its management after the discovery last year that the agency had 12,000 empty beds scattered throughout the system. Shutting down the prisons will save an estimated $77 million annually, Alexander said.
“Competition makes us all better. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not always fun. But I believe that it makes it better,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.
Privatizing the 18-county region in the southern part of the state from Polk County to the Florida Keys – about one-fifth of the state’s corrections operations affecting about 3,000 workers – will save from $22 million to $45 million a year, according to Alexander.
Several speakers said the private prison operators, including Boca Raton-based GEO Group which operates South Bay Correctional Institution, are able to save money by cutting back on staff, skimping on inmate programs and paying lower wages and providing fewer benefits for workers.
Deedra Jackson, who works at the state-run Hillsborough Correctional Institution, said she also worked at South Bay, where she said there were far fewer guards per inmate.
She equated privatizing prison operations to outsourcing the military.
“As corrections officers, we go to war every day,” Jackson said.
The committee approved the measure by a 10-4 vote, with a single Republican – Rep. Dennis Jones of Seminole – opposing.
Jones rejected other GOP senators’ arguments that the prison savings are needed so the money can be spent on education and health care as lawmakers grapple with a $1.4 billion budget hole.
“I’m not willing to balance the state budget on the backs of public safety at this time,” Jones said.
A House budget subcommittee is considering the privatization plan on Tuesday and the Senate Budget Committee will vote on the measure on Wednesday.
The Rules Committee also signed off on another measure (SB 2038) that would make it easier for lawmakers to outsource state functions. The proposal is a response to Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford’s ruling, now being appealed by lawmakers, that the way they ordered the prison privatization last year was unconstitutional.
Alexander tweaked the bill on Monday to require that a business case be made for the privatization but acknowledged that may not mean much, pointing to a four-page analysis provided by corrections officials regarding the privatization last year.
“I’m certain either of my daughters who are in college could have prepared this,” he said.
The measure, approved by a 9-5 vote, is “really about the legislature’s prerogative,” Committee Chairman John Thrasher said.
“This is about the Florida legislature making a policy decision we believe is in the best interest of the state of Florida,” said Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.