New Florida law allows export of prisoners to nearby states

06/09/09 Seán Kinane
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Beginning July 1, Florida will be able to export prisoners to other states because of a law signed by Governor Charlie Crist in May. It’s an effort to cut spending by reducing the need to build new prisons. But the Department of Corrections says they have no immediate plans to use that authority.

Victor Crist, a Republican from Tampa, is the chair of the Florida Senate’s Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations. Senator Crist sponsored the bill which will allow Florida to contract with nearby states that have available prison beds, like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, if it becomes necessary to export prisoners.

“The federal government requires that each state retain a certain percentage of their beds open in order to cover spikes in prison inmate populations. And if the state inmate population exceeds those numbers, then the federal government requires early release, which means ‘let them out.’”

“We currently have no plans to export prisoners from our state,” says Jo Ellyn Rackleff is a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections.

“One of Secretary Walt McNeil’s primary public safety goals is to reduce the number of prisoners returning to prison once they’re released. Maintaining close family and community ties are two important elements in helping inmates to make a successful transition back into society. For this reason the Secretary has concerns for placing prisoners out of state. Removing prisoners further from their families and communities undermines the goal of reducing recidivism.”

Senator Victor Crist says the Legislature directed the law to apply to people without ties to Florida, such as undocumented immigrants or inmates from other states.

“The directive would be, if it is necessary that it would be temporary and only those inmates that would have no ties to the state would be considered for this.”

Sharing available beds with other states is cheaper than building new prisons, according to Senator Crist. He says that it costs an average of $82,000 per bed to construct a prison. Over the next three or four years there are already 2,000 – 3,000 new prison beds per year scheduled for construction.

“Each year we’ve had to appropriate on an average of about $300 million annually to build new prison beds. And with dollars as scarce as they are this coming year, and with needs as great as they are, we tried to make the cuts in areas where we could reduce projected expenses. And we asked each department to bring us ideas on what we could consider to help reduce expenditures so that we could keep our most needed programs for children, families, seniors in place and not have to make those cuts.”

Both Senator Crist and the Department of Corrections spokesperson Jo Ellyn Rackleff say that the state predicts that the prison population rate is not expected to rise as quickly as had been previously thought. That means that prison overcrowding in Florida might not be a critical issue in the coming years.

“The legislation was intended as a safety net. For example if there were to be a hurricane in north Florida, it might be necessary to move inmates temporarily to nearby states. … This legislation gave us that authority.”

It costs the state an average of about 25,000 dollars per year to house a prisoner, according to Senator Crist. The daily amount that Florida would pay to a state that receives an inmate is the same as it costs to house that person in Florida. David Murrell is the executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. He disagrees with exporting prisoners because they might end up in private prisons rather than in unionized public facilities.

Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, is the largest private prison corporation in the country. It provides correctional services to federal, state, and local governments to operate and often to design, build, and operate prisons. Their spokesperson, Steve Owen, says allowing Florida to export prisoners provides the state with “flexibility” despite concerns from the PBA.

“We understand that not everyone agrees philosophically with public-private partnership. But public-private partnership in corrections has existed now for over 25 years, it’s a proven option. It has been proven time and again to be a meaningful resource to government in meeting their correctional responsibilities. This particular option that the State of Florida has now added, if utilized by the state, would really be extension of exiting services that are already provided. CCA has been partnering with the State of Florida since 1995.”

Some private prison operators, including CCA, have been criticized about inmate conditions. In March, Amnesty International released a report called “Jailed without Justice.” It called the immigrant detention system in the United States “broken and unnecessarily costly.” According to the website of ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, seven immigration detention facilities are run by private contractors, including CCA. But Owen distances his company from those criticisms.

“We have very high standards that we are required to meet. Number one that we impose on ourselves, but also that our customer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, imposes as well. There are detention standards that the federal government dictates must we meet. We meet those standards. … We’ve seen our partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement increase over the years, their utilization of our services. And I think that that speaks volumes to the level of trust that they have in our company and the quality of care that we provide those services to them and to the detainees that they entrust in our care.”

According to Department of Corrections spokesperson Jo Ellyn Rackleff, the state’s current prison capacity is about 107,000 prisoners and on Tuesday the number of inmates was 100,609.

The Florida Police Benevolent Association

Sen. Victor Crist

Amnesty International report: Jailed Without Justice

ICE website on detention facilities

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