* Plan would privatize 26 south Florida prisons
* It would create nation's largest private prison system
* Critics say savings are exaggerated, plan invites abuse
By Michael Peltier
Tallahassee, Fla., Feb 7 A proposal to
privatize at least 26 prisons in south Florida is facing stiff
opposition in the Florida Senate and may not have the votes to
pass, the chamber's president and chief backer acknowledged on
With the chamber split evenly on the issue, Senate President
Mike Haridopolos, a Republican from Merritt Island, said he will
postpone until at least next week a vote on whether the state
will outsource a third of its prisons, work camps and other
corrections facilities to a private vendor or vendors.
The plan would create the nation's largest private prison
Unable to yet muster the votes needed for passage,
Haridopolos warned lawmakers that failure to pass a prison
privatization measure would result in budget cuts of at least
$15 million in other parts of the state's $69.2 billion budget.
"This is a water balloon process," Haridopolos said. "If you
choose not to cut in one area, it's going to come out of another
area, because we're not going to raise taxes to do so."
Florida operates the third-largest prison system in the
United States, a $2.2 billion-a-year system overseeing nearly
101,000 inmates and another 112,800 offenders on community
The state Department of Corrections operates 62 major prison
facilities, including seven privately operated facilities; 46
work or forestry camps; 33 work-release centers; a medical
treatment center; and five road-work prisons. There are
currently 10,128 inmates in privately run facilities.
Florida lawmakers last year inserted a prison privatization
provision in the budget request, a move that was challenged by
the unions and later thrown out by the courts.
Backers say the effort will save taxpayers much more than
the $15 million required under the bill.
Critics say the cost savings are exaggerated and the plan
could cost taxpayers millions of dollars in pension benefits
paid to senior corrections employees who choose not to work for
a private prison.
They also say private prisons have no incentives to
rehabilitate inmates and are focused instead on profits.
"The overwhelming body of evidence on private prisons,
including their history in Florida, shows that locking people
away for profit is an invitation to abuse," said Julie
Ebenstein, policy and advocacy counsel with the American Civil
Liberties Union of Florida.
"The choice is a pretty easy one - we outsource our prisons
and pay the price in safety costs and civil rights, or we can
make real reforms in sentencing and rehabilitation that will
save money and keep Florida safe by preventing future crime."