By Joey Kavanagh, JPI Summer Intern
Despite growing concerns by major newspapers and advocates throughout Florida, the state’s legislature is planning to sell 30 of Florida’s prisons to the highest bidder by January of 2012. The state’s rationale is that the purportedly cheaper private management will trim Florida’s bloated corrections budget. What the legislature missed is the fact that the compensation of soon-to-be estranged state employees will not only offset the intended (though unreliable) savings but actually cost the state money. This deal ignores Florida’s rocky history with private prisons, their oft-contested savings motto and research showing cost-effective, community-based options proven successful in reducing recidivism while limiting the number of people who come in contact with the justice system—thereby actually reducing corrections spending. But, above all, the deal raises questions as to the extent that private prison companies influence legislation.
The “savings” of private prisons
Private prisons are mandated by state law to have an operating cost of 7% less than a similar state facility. All told, the planned 18-county privatization is supposed to save Florida (and by extension, Floridians) $20 million. But, again by way of state law, private prisons are only allowed to house individuals convicted of less-serious offenses. Therefore, there are no truly similar state and private facilities by which the 7% in savings can be measured. Coupled with a history of limited state oversight and overbilling, the championed savings offered by private prisons is still a matter of debate. Yet, the Florida legislature is aware of this uncertainty and still opted to authorize the largest state privatization deal ever in order to, according to Senator J.D. Alexander (FL-17), “more definitely answer the question of whether there is a cost savings.” Apparently the privatization of 30 of Florida’s prisons is just an empirically challenged social experiment. Unfortunately, lobbying records suggest that may not be the case.
Lobbying in Florida
JPI’s June 2011 report, Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prisons Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies, offers an in-depth look at the extent to which private prison companies (specifically CCA and GEO group—the two largest) influence legislation that ultimately seeks to increase the number of people held in their facilities. In Florida alone (the second largest “market” to Texas) CCA and GEO have spent millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions since 2003. Since October of last year GEO Group—who also happens to be based in Florida—donated $822,415 combined to both parties and paid several lobbying firms a total of $360,000 to influence legislation. It stands to reason then that GEO Group is the heavy favorite to win the contract from its home state, though Nashville-based CCA is not going quietly. From 2003 to 2010, CCA donated $300,000 in Florida campaign contributions.
It follows that the unprecedented contract in Florida speaks to the success of GEO’s and CCA’s lobbying efforts as they have effectively quelled a history of questionable conditions and savings concerns—not to mention, they sold a savings deal that actually costs the state money.
The bottom line
Amidst the contested savings, an FBI investigation, the apparent influence of big lobbying dollars and the history of poor conditions, one thing reigns supreme: the bottom line. Private prison companies are, by nature, defined by profit. Essentially, a private prison company is like a sleazy hotel conglomerate. But where Hilton looks to build more hotels and return residents through good service and clean rooms, GEO Group or CCA has a profit-motive to return residents through the exact opposite: poor programmatic services and cheaper room conditions. But that’s good business: cut costs, increase profits. For instance, CCA boasts a nearly 16% net income increase since Q2 2010 which CEO Damon Hininger attributes to “cost-containment initiatives.”
Sure enough, Florida has already seen the fallout from private prison companies’ cost-cutting initiatives. In 2004, inmates at a Palm Beach private facility—The Florida Institute for Girls, a juvenile center—rioted in reaction to the facility’s cost cutting measures. These measures included increased lockdowns, cuts to physical and outdoor activities, staff reductions, cancellation of educational programs, therapy sessions, volunteer programs and other special activities.
This speaks to the central problem with private prisons; good business for them is bad news for communities. So long as states solicit for-profit prisons, individuals and disproportionally affected communities will continue to be encumbered by the United States’ over-reliance on incarceration.