Florida's Privatized Prison System Is Chronically Underfunded

by | March 2, 2015

By Mary Ellen Klas

The two DVDs were only minutes long but they depicted deplorable conditions in the state's prison system: uninhabitable dorms, inmate-on-staff assaults and roofs that were so porous that prison staff rigged sheets of cardboard to serve as makeshift gutters.

It was a vivid example of chronic underfunding and understaffing at the Florida Department of Corrections, and then-Secretary Michael Crews wanted to show them to legislators last year in his effort to make the case for more money.

But the graphic pictures didn't fit the jobs message of Gov. Rick Scott, who came into office vowing to cut $1 billion from prisons. The governor's office ordered Crews not to show them. He made copies and distributed them to the chairmen of legislative committees anyway and, while no one agreed to show them publicly, Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, encouraged his budget committee to take a look.

The governor's office says it doesn't know who Crews shared the videos with, but it is now embracing the need for more money. Last year, however, the governor's budget staff downsized Crews' request for inmate food and for additional corrections staff, and the Legislature gave the DOC only some of what Crews sought. Another year of budget struggles at the troubled agency was underway.

As the Florida Legislature convenes its regular session on Tuesday, with Scott giving the first State of the State message of his second term, the festering troubles at the state's prison system have emerged as a problem that won't go away.

The FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have undertaken separate investigations into incidents at Florida prisons. Crews submitted another budget request but, because the numbers were controlled by the governor's office and he considered it a false statement about the agency's true needs, he didn't sign it. He retired from the job soon afterward.

Legislators are now asking what happened to $300 million they say was intended to increase staff and fix leaky roofs. The Senate is moving a bill to fundamentally shift oversight of prisons from the governor's control to an independent panel.

And, after a series of reports in the Miami Herald about suspicious inmate deaths and claims by whistleblowers that the prison system's chief inspector general sabotaged investigations, the governor and his new DOC secretary, Julie Jones, are asking the Legislature for $16.5 million to hire more staff and $15 million to repair roofs, vehicles and buildings. Jones is now using many of Crews' pictures to make the case.

In many ways, the story of Florida's prison system is as much a tale of Tallahassee power and priorities as it is of a dysfunctional system peppered with allegations of inmate abuse.

Prisons weren't discussed as a priority for either Scott or legislative leaders on the campaign trail, but budget records reviewed by the Herald/Times show the private prison industry was given special attention. Over the past four years, lawmakers and the governor increased spending on prison vendors by creating new programs and steering millions to them in state contracts, even as the public prisons crumbled and became more dangerous for inmates and staff.

Prison health contracts

Two years ago, the state entered into two five-year contracts worth $1.4 billion with Corizon Health Inc. and Wexford Health Services for inmate healthcare services. Last year, DOC paid $145 million to Corizon and another $30 million to Wexford but as complaints about the quality of care increased and costs climbed, Jones announced this month she is renegotiating the contracts. The new agreement is expected to cost the state more but, it is hoped, give inmates better care and redress if they are harmed.

The private prison industry has long held the favor of the GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican governors in Tallahassee. According to data compiled for the Herald/Times by FollowTheMoney.org, the companies led by the Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America have spent $5.28 million on Republican races in Florida in the past 12 years.

In 2011 and 2012, Scott and legislative leaders tried twice to privatize 27 prisons and work camps in 18 South Florida counties. They were stymied -- first by the courts and then by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. The bipartian group of lawmakers voted against the plan in the state Senate primarily because they doubted the budget savings and feared it would harm the communities that employed more than 3,500 state workers whose jobs would be affected.

After the vote, a lobbyist for one of the largest vendors told the Herald/Times that the governor had the authority to implement privatization on his own because the 2011 budget included money to outsource some South Florida prisons. "He has the authority to do it if he wants to,'' said Jim Eaton, lobbyist for the Geo Group. Privatization

Scott didn't openly discuss the strategy, or include it as part of his "Let's Get to Work" campaign, but documents show he and the legislative leaders used the budget process to do exactly as Eaton suggested -- gradually privatize pieces of the prison system without calling attention to it.

Two years ago, the state closed or consolidated 19 prisons and work camps, sending many of the remaining inmates into aging buildings. Construction continued, however, as the state completed new work camps and opened privately-run Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa County and Graceville Correctional in Jackson County.

Unlike the state-run prisons, the contracts with the private companies guarantee them a 90 percent occupancy rate, pay them per inmate, per day, and allow them to charge more for extra services and programs. Proponents say private prisons save money because they are more efficient and better managed than publicly run prisons. Opponents say their profit motive provides an incentive not to give inmates gain time, which increases costs, and their lower wages and benefits lead to staff turnover.

The governor and Legislature have now authorized 21 work-release centers, which serve minimum-security inmates who are being trained to be released back into the community. They are currently run by private operators. A bill filed by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, would allow maximum-security prisons, including those that were closed two years ago, to house community re-entry and work-release programs, which also could be managed by private vendors.

Prison budget

Crews was not the first state official to resist the governor's push to cut the DOC budget. Randy Ball, a former legislator who had served as former Gov. Charlie Crist's top prison budget advisor, warned Scott when he came into office that it was impossible to safely cut $1 billion from the prison budget as Scott had promised.

"I lasted 18 hours after I told them they can't make those cuts or they would endanger corrections officers,'' Ball recalled recently. Scott's former advisor, Donna Arduin, asked him to resign.

"After eight years of [former Gov. Jeb] Bush and four years of Crist, where the recession cut almost more than was safe, it couldn't be done," Ball said.

What's more, the record shows that while Crews was calling for more prison staff and repair money, the governor was authorizing a shift of funds away from those needs. The Legislature approved budgets that authorized the addition of correctional officers, but systematically, every year, DOC would shift money into other expenses and leave jobs unfilled.

The governor took credit for the reduction in state employees, starting the next budget year with fewer corrections officers than had been approved, then promised to fill the spots again in the next budget cycle. For example, in 2013-14, the Legislature authorized 8,717 corrections officers for adult male custody operations but the agency filled only 8,672. The governor then proposed increasing that number to 8,835 in 2014-15 -- an increase of 163 that was, in fact, only 118 positions more than the previous year's authorization.

Shifting dollars

Although the Legislature allocated the money to hire more prison staff, DOC shifted money out of personnel funds to pay for other expenses, such as food contracts and vehicle repairs.

"We've been cannibalizing the agency to keep these institutions running,'' Jones acknowledged to a House budget committee last month. The department has 16,851 authorized correctional officers positions but only 15,432 are filled, resulting in what records show are vacancies that have been as high as 10 percent of critical staff. The governor proposes staffing to full capacity -- adding 1,400 positions -- in 2015-16.

The staffing shortages have resulted in a spike in overtime that cost $16.3 million last year, nearly $13 million over budget, as the agency ordered some staff to work up to 16 hours a shift to meet minimum "critical staffing" levels.

Legislators just learning of these budget shifts have publicly worried that staff shortages could lead to a prison riot or staff injuries. "That's why we need to have our prison systems fully staffed,'' said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who served as the Senate budget chairman overseeing the prison budget for the past two years. "As we are now learning, authorizing and funding positions does not necessarily result in positions being filled. That's what needs to be rectified."

Meanwhile, budget documents also raise questions about the agency's priorities and management. For example, as prison officials have had to close two dormitories at Jefferson Correctional in North Florida because roof trusses are collapsing, another facility in North Central Florida, Mayo Correctional, sits idle after being closed in 2012. Nonetheless, DOC acknowledges it is spending about $90,000 to fix the roof on the empty Mayo building.

The state's debt from its prison-building binge of the last decade also continues to take a budget toll. The state owes an estimated $75 million a year in debt service for new prisons constructed in the past 10 years, the majority of which are run by private prison companies, according to a 2011 report by the Collins Center and Florida TaxWatch, the business-backed research group. Last year, budget documents show, about $54 million of that debt came from the Department of Corrections' fixed capital outlay budget alone.

Prison vendors, led by the Boca Raton-based GEO Group, had a another record year of contributions to the Republican Party of Florida. The industry spent $1.3 million on the governor's re-election bid and other Florida GOP candidates in the 2014 election cycle. GEO Group gave another $75,000 to the Republican Governors Association which backed Scott heavily, and its president, George Zoley, was a $25,000 contributor to the governor's mansion commission, which is raising money to build a park around the mansion property as Scott's legacy. The GEO Group now holds the contracts to five of the state's seven private prisons, accounting for 76 percent of the private beds contracted by the state.

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, a longtime advocate for the state's corrections officers, said he is worried that understaffing may be used to help private vendors gain an edge.

"Two weeks ago I would have said, 'No, that's not what's going on','' he said. "Today, I have my doubts. The responsibilities we've placed upon them and the level of funding is definitely at a critical situation."

Florida has the nation's third-largest prison population, with about 101,000 inmates -- an increase of more than 400 percent over a 30-year span. However, since 2009, the prison population has held steady while the crime rate has continued a decline. More than two-thirds of all inmates have some form of substance abuse problem; 17 percent are diagnosed with a serious mental illness, according to the department.

The governor's office says it helped Jones prepare her budget proposal and "will continue to work with her during the session to ensure the needs she identified are addressed."

"We don't know how Secretary Crews chose which legislators to share this video with,'' said Scott spokesman, John Tupps. "We do know that when Secretary Jones met with Gov. Scott, he suggested that she show as many pictures as possible of the conditions of Florida prisons to the Legislature."

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former Senate president who has pushed to privatize state prisons, acknowledges prison funding is not politically popular.

"It doesn't fit my message either,'' he said. "It's awfully hard to advocate for more money for prisons. They're not my favorite charity. It's not going to get you any votes, but it is a government responsibility to put bad people away."

He believes that adding money to the prison system is not a good idea "unless we add better management better systems and better use of the work force."

"I don't think the knee-jerk answer is to privatize all prisons, but until we have all evidence, we can't slam the door and say privatization may not provide some answers,'' he said.

Allison DeFoor, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at the Florida State University, believes the timing is right to discuss systemic reforms that result in "making us safer and costing us less."

"Making a lot of changes in the vessel doesn't do much good if you're sailing to the wrong place,'' he said.

DeFoor said the focus should be a cultural shift that attempts to improve the professionalism of staff with training and pay and using resources to keep inmates from returning. His organization recommended the creation of an oversight board to watch over DOC and its budget the way the Florida Transportation Commission oversees road building.

"In today's climate, the underfunding contributes to the culture problems,'' Evers said. "Once adequate funding is put into place, our officers will step up to the challenge with the oversight commission. We don't need an extra layer of government, but we do need some oversight and some direction and increased accountability in our correctional institutions."

(c)2015 Miami Herald