The Boca Raton-based GEO Group stood to benefit from Gov. Rick Scott's failed prison privitazation plan. (Photo courtesy of The GEO Group.)

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Plans almost always look better on paper than in practice.

When Gov. Rick Scott and the legislature decided that prisons would be the target — through privatization and budget cutbacks — of reduced government, it was an idea that fairly leaped off the paper.

First, there was that juicy $2.4 billion annual budget at a time when the state was strapped for cash. And it didn’t hurt that most of those directly affected won’t or can’t (particularly in Florida) vote. Finally, the privatization part could potentially send prosperity to friends and economic supporters of Scott and the Republican party, which controls both chambers of the state legislature.

But jobs reality and the courts got in the way of those prison plans. The privatization efforts were stymied — for now — by questions of constitutionality. And Jan. 10, when Scott’s Department of Corrections announced it was closing seven prisons in addition to four that had already been slated for closure, there was plenty of disappointment in the host communities. Many of them are small towns ill-equipped to absorb the loss of dozens, even hundreds, of jobs. And unlike the prisoners, those soon-to-be-unemployed (or displaced) folks can vote. And so can their neighbors.

“This is bad news for Indian River County,” Penny Chandler, president of the Indian River Chamber of Commerce told Treasure Coast newspapers about the closing of the Indian River Correctional Institution. Even if we looked at the base pay of $28,500 for the 155 employees, our community loses over $4.4 million. In a tough economy this will have implications on our local businesses.”

Actually, Chandler may be underestimating. The article reported that Indian River currently has 214 employees. And, with benefits, they’re making an average of $45,099.

Some of the soon-to-be-shuttered prisons and work camps, such as the Hillsborough and Broward Correctional Institutions, are located near urban areas. But most of the 11 are in smaller towns such as Immokalee and Raiford. And the loss of 50 jobs and $1.4 million (using the base pay figure) in populous Broward County (population 1.75 million) has a different impact — economically and politically — than the closing of Hendry Correctional Institution in Immokalee (population 24,154).

When Hendry closes June 1 and takes 74 jobs with it, that translates to a direct loss of $2.1 million in one of the poorest communities in the state. Almost half of Immokalee residents already live in poverty. And one out of five live at 50 percent below the poverty level.

But the local anguish shouldn’t bury the positive truth of prison closures: Particularly when it’s for the reasons given for these closures — a decline in crime — they’re as necessary as the closing of, say, military bases.

When Scott began pushing his $1 billion, seven-year prison reduction plan just after being inaugurated, Lloyd Dunkelberger at the The Ledger in Lakeland put together an interesting analysis of the changes being proposed for the prison system

“State leaders … may look to aggressively embrace private prisons, as well as an array of sentencing reforms, improved substance abuse and education programs and other efforts to prepare prisoners to successfully return to their communities,” Dunkelberger wrote, pointing out that one in three Florida prisoners are re-incarcerated within three years of being released.

Well, the privatization part moved forward, but the other things — certainly the things that require money — were left behind. The thinking being that things such as health/mental health/substance abuse would be part of the privatization formula.

But if the legislature expects to keep mining the corrections budget, it might want to review programs that are economically painless, or even positive. Things such as repealing the law that eliminated parole for prisoners and the one that requires they serve 85 percent of their sentences. There are enhancements they can look at, such as the mandatory minimums that are taking away sentencing authority from judges.