Florida Embracing Private Prisons

When then-candidate Rick Scott and the police unions were butting heads over Scott's plans to reduce prison costs, I pointed out that neither side was particularly sympathetic. The police unions were accusing Scott of wanting to release dangerous criminals and Scott was arguing that forcing inmates to grow their own food was going to save money.

Now that he's governor, Scott has settled on privatizing Florida's prison system, which isn't a particularly good idea either. Sara Mayeux writes that the Florida Police Benevolent Association is suing to stop 30 prisons from being privatized:

Some context: First, according to a recent analysis by finance blogger Mike Konczal at Rortybomb, Florida is not currently a high user of private prisons relative to other states, with under 10% of its prisoners in private facilities. But Konczal hypothesizes that “once a state flips to using private contractors, they use them a lot” — so the Florida PBA is probably not wrong to worry that flipping 30 prisons could be the harbinger of more privatization to come.

Second, perhaps worth noting, Florida’s corrections officers are organized statewide along with other law enforcement officials (police, highway patrol, etc.) in the Florida Police Benevolent Association. In contrast, in California, the prison guards have their own (powerful) lobby, the CCPOA. (As, for that matter, do the California Highway Patrol, the police, etc.) I’m wondering if that’s one reason why the Florida corrections officers didn’t have the clout in Tallahassee to stop this budget provision on the front end. As most of my knowledge of Florida politics derives from Carl Hiaasen novels, however, I’d welcome insight from any Florida-based readers I might have.

Well, another big problem here is that neither Scott nor the Florida PBA would have been amenable to any kind of reform that would have actually worked. The only way to really reduce the cost of mass incarceration is by reducing the number of people in prison, which both Scott and the Florida PBA would have opposed.

Now as Mayeux notes private prisons aren't so good at saving money, but they do introduce a profit motive into "tough on crime" policies that expand the prison population and thus the demand for their services. A recent report from the Justice Policy Institute made it clear that this is exactly how these companies think, citing a budget report from the Corrections Corporation of America fretting that leniency in sentencing, drug decriminalization, and parole reform could "adversely" affect "demand for our facilities and services."

To the extent that private prisons "save money," and they don't so much save the taxpayer money so much as they simply profit from running shoddier operations, it's by offering fewer worker benefits and cutting corners on services. From the Justice Institute report:

Private run facilities often provide less training, pay substantially less, and have a
higher turnover rate of staff than most staterun public facilities. Private prisons often hire correctional officers who have less education and less training than those in public facilities. By using cheap and less skilled labor, private prisons are able to further reduce their spending and increase revenue. Most private prisons do not allow the formation of correctional officer unions, which helps to reduce the overall cost of running a private prison, but limits the staff’s ability to negotiate pay, benefits, and proper training.

Unions can be a bad influence on criminal-justice policy, but they also have a reason for existing that goes beyond simply expanding the number of people in prison in order to make money. I'm much more sympathetic to the idea that prison workers deserve a say in their pay, benefits and working conditions than I am to the mere financial interests of private prison companies. 

I'm not sure about the legal merits of the PBA's lawsuit, but what's happening in Florida is disappointing given the general trend among figures on all sides of the spectrum.

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