Teamsters Demand Hearings On Closures Of Florida Prisons While Dems Blast Gov. Scott For Job Losses & Privatization
By: David Royse/The News Service of Florida
Additional reporting by Mark Christopher/Sunshine Slate
[Tallahassee, FL] The state plans to close seven Florida prisons, including a major institution at Raiford, as part of a consolidation plan that’s possible because of declining numbers of prisoners, the Department of Corrections (DOC) said Thursday.
Four work camps will also close. The facilities will be shut down by July 1, the agency said.
“No inmates will be released early as a result of this decision, and there will remain adequate bed space to accommodate projected prison admissions, which have steadily decreased since FY 2007-08,” the department said in a statement.
The largest facility slated to close is New River Correctional Institute in Raiford, a part of the so-called “Iron Triangle” of prison facilities that surround Florida State Prison in northeast Florida.
New River C.I. holds more than 1,300 inmates and is slated for closure in the plan by March, with the adjacent New River O-Unit to be shut down April 1. Closure of just those two facilities would save the state $17.6 million next year.
Big savings would also be achieved by closing another large prison, Jefferson Correctional, in Monticello just east of Tallahassee. That Florida prison holds nearly 1,200 inmates and closure slated by April 1 will save the state $10.2 million, the Corrections department said.
New River is in an area with several prisons, and employees there may have other options for prison work. Jefferson C.I. is a different story, and the loss of more than 200 jobs could be problematic for tiny Jefferson County.
Tallahassee has a federal women’s prison, and there are Florida prisons in adjoining Wakulla and Madison counties that are remaining open. There’s also a state prison in Mayo, not too far from Monticello.
Other facilities targeted for closure by the plan announced Thursday are Broward Correctional Institution in Fort Lauderdale; Demilly in Polk City; Gainesville C.I.; Hillsborough C.I. in Riverview (near Tampa), Indian River C.I. in Vero Beach, and work camps in Gadsden, Washington, Hendry and Levy counties.
Hillsborough C.I., and Broward C.I. are women’s prisons.
DOC Secretary Ken Tucker is in charge of Florida prisons
“Declining prison admissions has led to a surplus of prison beds, allowing us to pare down our budget shortfall by consolidating and closing our older, less efficient facilities,” said Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker. “We are committed to placing as many affected staff as possible in vacant positions for which they are qualified.”
Inmates will be transferred to similar facilities, Tucker said.
When deciding which ones would close, several factors, including operational costs, impact on the community, security and programs were considered, he said.
Last March, Corrections announced it would close Brevard Correctional near Cocoa and Hendry Correctional in Immokalee.
The decision comes as the state is in the middle of an effort to privatize nearly 30 facilities, though that move has been blocked for now by a court challenge.
Teamsters Ask Lawmakers To Hold Hearings On Florida Prison Closures
Not everyone is behind the prison-closing plan. Among those who are not happy with the idea: The Teamsters. They say that lawmakers should hold field hearings on the DOC’s plan.
“These proposed closures would devastate the dedicated correctional officers who work at these facilities, their families and the small businesses in the surrounding communities,” said Ken Wood, acting president of Teamsters Local 2011, which recently won the right to represent corrections officers in Florida.
“The decision to close these prisons has been anything but transparent. It would be a dereliction of duty to rush into prison closings without careful public review, especially when the economic health of our communities and the safety of our citizens are at stake,” Wood said.
Acting president of teamsters Local 2011 Ken Wood is fighting the privatization and closure of Florida Prisons
Adding a little extra drama to it all is the fact that the timing of the DOC’s announcement “coincided with the first day of meetings between Teamsters Local 2011 and the State to review contract proposals for DOC officers,” according to the Teamsters.
The Teamsters feel that hearings could possible change some of the closure plans, if the affected locals have a say in the matter. Community opposition to the planned closing of a Hillsborough facility last year kept it open, the union points out.
Democrats Use Florida Prison Closures To Criticize Gov. Scott
And on Thursday, Democrats jumped on the DOC’s announcement as an opportunity to criticize Gov. Rick Scott, saying the move will increase an already high unemployment rate and negatively affect the surrounding communities that have prison-based economies.
The move will save tens of millions of dollars, but also might mean the loss of hundreds of jobs.
The department said it is committed to “placing as many affected staff as possible in vacant positions for which they are qualified.” The total number of full time jobs that will be lost is about 1,300 but not all of them are currently filled, and some of those who lose those jobs will get new ones in the system.
Democrats have criticized Scott, who has staked the success of his governorship on job creation and the lowering of the state’s unemployment rate – currently 10% – for cutting the size of state government, in many cases lopping state government jobs.
Photo: House of Rep.
Rep. Alan Williams jumps into the Florida Prisons debate
Scott has been very clear that he is interested in creating private sector jobs – not government jobs. But if those government workers are left without a job, they still show up in unemployment figures, on which Scott will have to run for re-election.
And the minority party slammed the department’s move on Thursday after it was announced.
“I am saddened and disappointed with Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to close several correctional institutions that are economically vital to our rural communities,” said Rep. Alan Williams (D-8/Tallahassee).
“I care about and have great concern for the people who work at these facilities, their families, and the small businesses that have relied upon the employment and economic opportunity that these prisons have brought to these fiscally constrained areas of our state,” Williams said.
State Democratic Chairman Rod Smith said the move was part of an “extreme Tea Party agenda” on the governor’s part.
The administration, though, said the move makes sense. The number of prisoners has dwindled as the crime rate has reached its lowest in decades, and the state’s lawmakers have eased up in recent years on the lengthy minimum mandatory sentencing laws that were common in the 1980s and 1990s.
Also, drug treatment for addicts rather than straight up prison has come into vogue.
Scott and lawmakers last year also sought to privatize a number of prisons, but that got caught up in the courts because of the way lawmakers went about it.
Senate Offers New Prison Privatization Proposal
But after that rebuffing by a judge, the Legislature will try again to shed several Florida prisons, this time doing it in statute.
The Senate Rules Committee on Friday quietly released a proposal and scheduled a hearing for this coming Wednesday to discuss the proposed committee bill (SPB 7172), which would require the Department of Corrections to privatize all Florida prisons and other correctional facilities in 18 counties in the Southern half of the state.
Private companies wishing to bid on the prisons – which could go to multiple companies or in one big contract to just one company – must be able to find 7% cost savings to the state to get the contract.
The Legislature passed nearly the same measure last year, but it did it in the fine print of the state budget known as proviso language, rather than passing a bill that went through the committee process. That violated the Florida Constitution, Judge Jackie Fulford ruled in September. That decision is on appeal currently.
The bill would appear to take care of that concern, at least, though it won’t appease the critics of privatization in general. The Teamsters said that the state is rushing into a wholesale privatization effort without thinking it through.
On this issue of privatization, just as with the closures, they are asking for hearings.
“There has to be a comprehensive study – this makes a tremendous impact on the different communities … we kind of think this is a rush to judgment,” said acting Teamsters Local 2011 president Wood.
The privatization plan does not include the prisons and work camps in the DOC’s closure plan.
The bill would require the department to privatize all Florida prison facilities, including annexes, prisons, and work release centers in Manatee, Hardee, Indian River, Okeechobee, Highlands, St. Lucie, DeSoto, Sarasota, Charlotte, Glades, Martin, Palm Beach, Hendry, Lee, Collier, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
That would include several prisons classified as “major institutions” by the Corrections Department, including Everglades Correctional Institution, Homestead C.I., Dade C.I., and the South Florida Reception Center, all in Miami-Dade County; Charlotte C.I. in Charlotte County; Martin C.I. in Martin County; Hardee C.I. in Hardee County; and Okeechobee C.I., in Okeechobee County.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, Ann Howard, said the Legislature makes the policy.
“Whatever it is that goes through, we will enforce,” Howard said.
Private properties? (L-R) Everglades C.I. and South Florida Reception Center -Two of the larger Florida Prisons up for privatization
Prison Privatization, A History … The Future?
Only since the mid-1980s has the private prison industry been an option. In 1984, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service contracted with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to house federal prisoners. Privatization contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons soon followed.
On the local level, Hamilton County in Tennessee signed a deal in 1984 with CCA. The first state-level private-prison contract was executed between Kentucky and the United States Corrections Corporation in 1985.
The growth in the number of prisoners in private facilities is staggering, according to a 2002 report. Back in 1987, a little more than 3,000 inmates out of roughly 3.5 million inmates were housed in private facilities. By 2001, that number had swelled to 123,000 (out of 6.5 million), a 4,000% increase.
At least 32 states and Puerto Rico have contracts with private companies to house prisoners. Industry leader CCA had more than 50% of that business at the time of the 2002 report. They would love to add Florida prisons to that list.
Industry-funded studies often show that municipalities can save tax dollars by using private prisons. But states have found that private prisons tend to hand pick the lower-cost inmates and ship the more expensive prisoners to the state-run facilities, skewing the data, according to a recent story in The New York Times.
“There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly,” said Russ Van Vleet, a former co-director of the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center, speaking to the Times. “But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct.”
According to the report, Arizona’s data shows that, in some cases, private-prison inmates can cost the state as much as $1,600 more per year. Or they cost about the same as when housed by the state.
Even CCA admits that the supposed savings to taxpayers are not clear cut.
“There is a mixed bag of research out there,” said Steve Owen, spokesman for CCA. “It’s not as black and white and cut and dried as we would like.”
Nonetheless, the prison privateers use lobbying efforts to increase their prisoner base, which has been dwindling as crime rates go down in America. The bottom line is that the companies are scrambling to fill the cells. They need more criminals.
The private-prison industry’s top dogs – CCA and The GEO Group – have been major contributors to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an influential public policy organization that develops legislation lengthening prison sentences and writes bills that moves governments toward privatization.
Lead image: DOC website, includes prison bars by Irargerich