Aaron Deslatte: Costs of running private prisons hard to quantify
TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature is fast-tracking the most sweeping prison privatization plan in the country. Lawmakers had to respond after a circuit judge last summer dared to declare their last attempt had unconstitutionally used the state’s budget as a vehicle for implementing policy.
The rationale for handing over more than 19,000 prisoners to private enterprise is to inject competition into a public-service delivery system, according to Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, the most visible architect of the initiative. That puts the public sector on notice it will have to compete, and theoretically helps contain costs.
But to truly see if this saves money, the public and private sectors would need to be on something close to a level playing field. But lawmakers eager for privatization efforts to succeed sometimes tilt the playing field too far in their favor.
Of the four districts within DOC, Region IV — an 18-county swath of southern Florida — would appear to have a number of advantages for companies.
All prisoners are not equally expensive to incarcerate. Some pose threats and have to be placed in isolated environments. Others have serious health conditions or mental disorders that require expensive care. Older prisoners also cost taxpayers more.
The Orlando Sentinel asked for a snapshot of the prison population as of Jan. 20. It suggests that the 29 facilities in Region IV have the lowest percentage of prisoners requiring more intensive mental-health care (23.2 percent) and the lowest percentage of prisoners with more severe medical conditions (21 percent.)
It had the second-lowest population of “close management” prisoners, who are deemed more violent and are one step below maximum security. (DOC email suggests the agency minimized the number of “close management” prisoners by transferring them out of the region when lawmakers tried to privatize it last spring.)
Finally, District IV had the second-fewest number of prisoners aged 50 and older.
The differences between regions aren’t extreme, but they could help explain why South Florida was selected for privatization; besides its relatively cheaper population of regular prisoners, it has no maximum-security or death row inmates.
When the Senate Budget Committee passed the privatization plans last week after allowing three minutes of public testimony, corrections officers in the audience shouted “Shame!”
Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican, spent most of the hearing decrying the public costs that the privatization would incur, saying privatized prisons in the past have been “cherry picking” cheaper prisoners.
Supporters say private prisons in Florida have produced savings of 7 percent. But only two of Florida’s seven private prisons handle “close management” prisoners, and their contracts limit the percentage of HIV-positive and wheelchair-bound inmates, records show.
The bill requires the contractors — most likely CCA or GEO Group — to produce 7-percent savings their first year of operation in Region IV. After that, lawmakers can decide what to pay them. The bill doesn’t contemplate the costs that could be absorbed by the rest of the prison system if more dangerous, disabled or otherwise costly inmates are transferred out of the private prisons. Shrewd contract negotiators will have to do that.
Lawmakers say they want to design a grand experiment between profit-driven prisons and those solely tasked with maintaining public safety. But if it isn’t a fair competition, what have you proved?
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