In a major defeat for the private prison industry on February 14th the Florida State legislature rejected SB 2038.. Had the bill succeeded it would have initiated the selloff of 24 of the state’s prisons to private operators, by far the biggest such deal in U.S. history. Backing the measure were the state’s Republican Governor Rick Scott, State Senate President Mike Haridopolos plus the two largest players in the U.S. private prison market, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Florida-based GEO Group. Between them the two companies have donated nearly two million dollars to Florida political campaigns over the last three election cycles n order to grease the wheels of passage for this bill.
Republicans Split Ranks
In the end, some nine Republicans crossed the floor to help defeat the bill by a narrow 21-19 margin. Opposition came from a curious alliance of fiscally suspicious, morally upright Republicans and mainstream Democrats.. While supporters claimed privatization could save up to $16.5 million for the country’s third largest state prison system (after California and Texas), a number of legislators were skeptical of such claims. Some argued that private prisons economized by cherry picking low maintenance prisoners, leaving people with serious medical conditions or histories of violence in the care of the state. Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla called the proposal a “bigger gamble than casinos.” Apparently Jim McDonough, who ran Florida prisons under former Gov. Jeb Bush, sent an influential letter to all Republican legislators urging a “no” vote on the grounds that the projected savings were unreliable. Last month the schism over the issue in the GOP went public when Haridopolos fired the Republican head of the state prison budget committee, Mike Fasano when Fasano came out against the privatization effort. Fasano had made his position quite clear, “You don’t put corrections officers and their families out of work just so corporations can make a profit.”
Other Republicans like former county sheriff Steve Oerlich, took the moralistic approach, “I’m scared about the whole idea of private companies being responsible for taking away someone’s freedom, for keeping them there,” said Oerlich, “no sooner should we privatize our military than we should be privatizing our corrections department and our correctional officers. I think it’s bad policy.”
Mobilization against 2038 created additional strange bedfellows. For example, Republican Greg Evers joined a labor-oreinted opposition to the bill because some 3,500 unionized prison guards live in his constituency and he feared their well-paying jobs would disappear. The unions themselves, including the Teamsters (who now represent correctional officers,) AFSCME and the Florida Education Association also came out against as did the NAACP and the Tea Party..
While for the moment the bill appears dead, according to the letter of the law Scott has the power to issue an executive order to privatize the targeted prisons. But observers considered this highly unlikely due to the fracturing of his party ranks over the issue.
Future Grand Plans for the Privates
While social justice activists and prison reformers breathed a sigh of relief at Florida’s rejection of the deal, the corporations vowed to continue their quest for a bigger market share of the some 2.3 prison and jail beds in the U.S. A Huffington Post report of February 13th revealed that CCA had sent out letters to Departments of Corrections in 48 states offering cash for prisons. Billed as a way to help states out of fiscal difficulties, the proposal included a twenty year management agreement between CCA and state authorities for all prisons purchased. The missive from CCA’s Chief Executive Officer, Harley Lappin, former Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, stated: “We believe this comes at a timely and helpful juncture and hope you will share our belief in the benefits of the purchase-and-manage model.” This offer by CCA drew its inspiration from the firm’s 2011 $72.7 million purchase of Lake Erie Correctional Facility in Ohio, a process initated by then newly elected right wing Governor John Kasich. Lappin viewed the Ohio deal as a model to emulate. As he put it, “We want to build on that success and provide our existing or prospective government partners with access to the same opportunity,” But a report from Policy Matters Ohio refuted Lappin’s claims of success. Policy Matters calculated that he prison sale would cost taxpayers $11 million more over the next 20 years than if the state would have continued to own the prison.
The CCA offer is a warning that the privates in the freedom deprivation sector remain determined to improve their bottom lines by dangling money in the face of cash-strapped state corrections and financial managers. Let us hope that other states follow the example of Florida rather than tying the liberty of their citizens to the financial fortunes of the prison profiteers.
James Kilgore is a Research Scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois. He is the author of three novels, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, Freedom Never Rests and Prudence Couldn’t Swim, all written during his six and a half years of incarceration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org