Private prison industry converts Florida inmates into very profitable commodities

The governor did not say, “Dammit … I’m getting to the bottom of this money-sucking private prison mess.”

Rick Scott’s reticence might seem a bit out of character, given his self-crafted persona as Florida’s cold-blooded budget-cutting crusader. Here’s a guy who over the years has vetoed state allocations for Special Olympics, Goodwill Industries, United Cerebral Palsy, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the Holocaust Memorial on Miami Beach, not to mention dozens of state grants to colleges, libraries, ferries, sewer projects, museums, industrial parks, after-school programs, healthcare for the homeless and raises for state firefighters.

“I go through the budget and I try to find out what’s best for citizens. This is their money. It’s not government money,” Gov. Scott declared a couple of years ago, as he whacked $461.4 million from the budget. “They’re paying taxes, and I’m going to do my best to make sure that money is spent wisely.”

Except when that taxpayer money is ladled out to the private-prison industry.

You’d think that the governor or maybe a state Cabinet officer or a conservative state legislator or some honcho over at the Florida Department of Corrections would have perked up when a forensic auditor found that the so-called savings promised by private, for-profit prison contractors were the illusionary byproducts of creative bookkeeping and brutal cutbacks in prisoner services.

Private contractors oversee about 10 percent of Florida’s 98,000 state prisoners, collecting some $142 million a year to run seven prisons on the promise, etched in law, that these for-profit corporations will charge the state 7 percent less than what it costs DOC to incarcerate convicts.

Except no one has bothered to check to see if these saving were legit. Not until state Rep. David Richardson came along. The retired forensic auditor from Miami Beach has taken it upon himself to dig into the records and conditions at the prisons run by contractors. Richardson has spent the last two years interviewing hundreds of inmates and examining the books of the privately run prisons and work-release programs. He found that inmates overseen by for-profit contractors were shortchanged on food and basic services (even hot water at one women’s prison). Meanwhile, DOC was funneling the least troublesome, most easily managed convicts into private operations.

Yet Richardson still couldn’t find the promised 7 percent savings. Apparently that money has been diverted into corporate profits and executive salaries. Though, to be fair, a sizable chunk of private-prison income has come back to Florida in the form of generous campaign contributions.

“Let me say, I absolutely think there’s a nexus between political contributions and the fact that there has been no meaningful results concerning my audits,” Richardson told me.

He described a hearing in which his findings were discussed. He noticed lobbyists for the for-profit prison industry were standing in the back of the room. None spoke. No need. It was signal enough to the legislators that they just showed up.

Of course, this amounts to the circle of life in Florida, where private-prison lobbyists have been conniving with their pet legislators for years to privatize a chunk of the state prison system.

Oh, it’s not just Florida tussling over privatized prisons. Last year, the Obama Justice Department decided to stop contracting with private outfits because they “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and… they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

Which sounds mightily close to what Richardson has found in Florida.

But Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s attorney general, has other ideas. After taking office, Sessions, a longtime champion of prison privatization, promptly reversed the Obama directive. No wonder stock in the Boca Raton-based GEO Group, a giant private-prison and detention-services operation, has gone wild since Trump was elected. The Motley Fool reported in April that GEO stock had gained 103 percent since November. Meanwhile, stock prices for CoreCivic, the nation’s largest private-prison operator, jumped 136 percent.

Sessions figures he’ll need plenty of extra prison cells, given that he has ordered federal prosecutors to revert to the old war-on-drugs policies and “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense in each case.” Plus, the Trump administration wants private contractors to house the expected hordes of undocumented immigrants swept up in those ICE raids that make the president’s supporters fairly giddy. (Unless the supporters happen to be farmers or vintners or poultry processors or roofing contractors.)

But the Trump get-tough policy has shown some definite bottom-line results. The Daily Beast reported Tuesday that so far in the 2017 fiscal year, eight people have died in ICE custody, compared to 10 deaths during the entire 2016 fiscal year. All but one of those deaths this year, and all but two last year, occurred in private, for-profit detention centers.

Maybe, in the Trump era, those deaths will go down in the account books as so many fewer mouths to feed. The likes of Jeff Sessions and Rick Scott can chalk up the resulting savings to the introduction of corporate efficiencies into an old-fashioned prison bureaucracy.

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