Private Prison Bill Dies in Florida

In Florida, a coalition of Democrats and a few moderate Republicans killed what could have been a major expansion of private prisons. The measure would have privatized 27 prisons and displaced more than 3,500 corrections officers. In the Florida Senate, nine Republicans voted against the measure, along with all 12 Democratic state senators. It was a rare victory for both Democrats and the labor unions that fought the bill.

Proponents had argued the measure would save the state over $16 million in its first year, and the defeat may now lead to increased budget cuts in education and health care. 

Interestingly, much of the debate around the bill focused on the workers, like prison guards, who would lose jobs as a result of the privatization. With major pushes against public employee bargaining rights in Wisconsin and now in Arizona, state workers have largely been villified. This debate seems to have gone very differently. As the Tampa Bay Times reports:


Senators debated privatization for nearly three hours, and opponents' floor speeches often showed more passion. Rather than talk about numbers, they talked about people, such as the treatment of correctional officers, whose starting salary is $34,000 a year and who have not received an across-the-board pay raise for the past six years.

"What's wrong with state employees?" said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. "We should be taking care of them, rather than kicking them under the bus."

It's not as though private prisons have a great track record here. Last year, NPR did an excellent two part series on the troubles private prisons had wrought on small towns in Texas and Mississippi. In Mississippi, a private juvenile prison with 1,200 inmates had rampant abuse and horrifying inadequancies. One complaint described "contraband brought in by guards, sex between female guards and male inmates, inadequate medical care, prisoners held inhumanely in isolation, guards brutalizing inmates and inmate-on-inmate violence that was so brutal it led to brain damage." In Texas, the NPR report examined the financial costs to cities. Texas has been at the forefront of prison privatization, and as more and more towns have tried to cash in on the trend, the companies have had trouble filling the cells. That's left some towns with emptry prisons and serious financial woes. 

In both both articles, the prisons highlighted were operated by GEO Group, the same company that's been lobbying in Florida.

A GEO Group spokesperson told theTampa Bay Times they're still hoping that Gov. Rick Scott will opt to outsource some prisons in south Florida, but there's no word yet on what the conservative governor will do. While he took a hard-right approach last year, he's been showing signs of moderating in 2012.

In the meantime, Democrats and labor unions can enjoy a rare victory, at least for now.

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