Nine Republicans jump ship to help sink prison privatization plan in Florida Senate

02/15/12 Seán Kinane
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An attempt to privatize some prisons in Florida has been defeated … for now. A bill under consideration by the Senate would have reduced state spending on prisons by turning over more than two dozen south Florida facilities to private companies. Nine Republicans jumped ship to join the minority Democrats to shoot down the bill.

Opponents warn that privatization of state prisons leads to a loss of accountability and could increase costs to the state. But supporters, including Republican Senator JD Alexander, say private prisons would reduce costs and provide better service to inmates.

“Providing for an alternative management structure will help give us an opportunity to do a better job of making more of these folks better citizens.”

But state-employed corrections officers, labor unions and their supporters have fought back against the move to privatize prisons. If privatization happened, the officers would lose their jobs and benefits. They would be eligible to apply for similar positions with the private companies, but it’s likely their pay or benefits would be less. Speaking on the floor of the state Senate, Republican Senator Steve Oelrich broke rank with party leaders. He argued private prisons wouldn’t be as accountable as state-run facilities.

“You know they gave us a very heavy responsibility by taking away people’s freedom. And I’m scared about the whole idea of private companies being responsible for taking away someone’s freedom and keeping it there. And the whole idea of accountability, not through government, but through a private enterprise that’s responsible for them, with the primary notion that we expect them to spend less dollars.”

Another opponent, Republican Senator Mike Fasano warned that the promised cost savings may never materialize. He cited an example of how a west-central Florida county had to take over a prison from a private company.

“Now, you’re talking Hernando County with a very small budget is now having to spend $3 million to reverse the major repairs that the private company did to a facility paid for by the taxpayers of Hernando County. In fact in hiring the county-run prison, it became clear that the quality of officers that the private company had hired was questionable.”

Several weeks ago, after Fasano voiced his opposition to prison privatization, the Senate President stripped him of his budget subcommittee chairmanship. That committee oversees spending on prisons and the courts. Fasano was also removed from the Senate’s main budget committee.

Because nine Republicans joined Democrats in opposing prison privatization the bill was defeated Tuesday afternoon 21–19.

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