By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The prison system and the Department of Corrections are probably some of the least appealing parts of state government.
As the only group you can absolutely count on not to vote, the people who populate prisons don’t have much of a voice in Tallahassee. And how many citizens are willing to make the effort to understand the bureaucracy, much less the issues, on behalf of criminals? Most folks would rather not even hear about prisons.
Which means we better be paying real close attention to the prison system these days. Not only does it tend to be overlooked, but with the third-largest penal population in the country, Florida invests a lot of money in prisons.
Florida prisons are a $2.3 billion industry. And state leaders are planning to privatize that industry. Only two private prison companies are big enough to take on such a venture, Correctional Corporation of America and the Geo Group. The GEO Group is a financial supporter of Gov. Rick Scott and employs Scott’s friend, Bill Rubin, as a lobbyist.
All of which make the recent reports about the goingson at the Department of Corrections troubling.
- Aug. 3: State inspectors are unable to get into the privately run South Bay Correctional Institution in Palm Beach County to do a surprise drug sweep. After 20 minutes of trying to get someone’s attention, including shining flashlights at security cameras, the state inspectors give up and leave.
- Aug. 17: Legislators and Gov. Scott say they hope the state can save $20 million a year by privatizing prisons. Well, it turns out that, right off the bat, it’s going to cost $25 million to begin the privatization process for the 29 prisons and camps south of Ocala. That cost that wasn’t revealed during legislative hearings about privatization.
- Aug. 18: The state shuts down the Florida Correctional Medical Authority, a watchdog group that made sure the health care needs of prisoners were being met. The CMA was part of a settlement between prisoners, Florida and the federal government in a class action lawsuit filed in 1972 and settled in 1986.
- Aug. 22: For the second time in a week, Scott overrides a decision by Department of Corrections chief Edwin Buss. Scott overturns a contract to film a reality show, Lockup, at a Florida prison (despite assertions by Buss’ staff that at least five Scott staffers were aware months before of the contract), and also abruptly ends the contract of Elizabeth Gondles, whose husband runs the only company that accredits prison health care systems.
- Aug. 25: After Scott overturns two Department of Corrections’ contracts, he reportedly forces Buss to resign. When Scott hired Buss at the end of December, his press release said that the state “was fortunate to land such an experienced reformer who was being coveted nationwide.”
- Aug. 25: Following Buss’ resignation, Scott approves the contract for Lockup.
Is the forcing out of Buss a good move by a concerned governor? Or a power grab to better control privatization?
At this point, it’s hard to know. But there are enough red flags right now to make it look like Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution on Mayday.