Senate Calls Off Prison Privatization

Mike Fasano
TAMPA (2012-2-15) -

No more private prisons in Florida…at least not for now. State senators decided by two votes last night to kill a massive privatization program designed to reduce state prison costs by seven percent a year.

Have all senators voted?

It had divided the Senate and called his leadership into question. Now, Senate President Mike Haridopolos -- the tension evident in his voice -- awaited the verdict.

"19 yeas, 21 nays, mister president. The bill fails."

The applause after the announcement came from prison guards and their family members who had become fixtures in the state capitol during the privatization debate. They walked the hallways, testified at committee hearings and made their personal stories a central issue. Had the privatization of 28 southern Florida prisons gone through, thousands would have lost their jobs.

Brad Pruitt is a correctional officer at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, which was not on the privatization list.

"The reason we won this today is we made this about facts," said Pruitt, "We equipped the senators with facts that this was not going to save money. It was all about lining the pockets of a handful of people. It was definitely going to cause an issue of public safety for both the officers the inmates and the general public."

But many senators complained they never got facts they could trust. There were too many variables in side-by-side cost comparisons of state prisons and private prisons, too many conflicting anecdotes…and a real fear that the cost of laying off thousands of prison workers would dwarf the seven percent savings they were told to expect.

Meanwhile, said Republican Dennis Jones of Seminole during the floor debate, public opinion was turning. "Public perception back home is what it is, and right now it looks like you’re putting public safety an issue that's only worth seven percent," said Jones.

Jones was one of nine Republicans who joined the Senate's 12 Democrats in a coalition assembled by another Republican, Mike Fasano of New Port Richey. Fasano's rebellion against president Haridopolos had cost him a prison committee chairmanship. But this was Fasano's night.

"A clear message was sent by 21 of the 40 senators," said Fasano. "We don't want to privatize public safety. We don't want to turn over a half billion dollars of state- paid, taxpayer paid facilities to two corporations and let them turn a profit on the back of Florida tax payers."

Using the Republican leadership math, privatizing the prisons would have saved the state more than $16 million a year. Haridopolos, who lost a similar privatization battle in the last legislative session, says he accepts the judgment of the Senate…but the yearly $16 million is not optional money.

"And everyone knows the consequences of it," said Haridopolos. "Meaning that we're going to have to find 16 and half million dollars somewhere else. And not just for one year, but for many years to come.

The senate president said education and health care are now likely to experience what he called a "disproportionate hit." What happens now remains unclear. Senate leaders say Governor Rick Scott has the power to privatize the prisons by executive order. He hasn't said what he'll do. But he may have learned from the senate's experience that there are easier and gentler ways to reduce his prison budget by seven percent.

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