Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: In Florida, candor has a very short shelf life

She spoke with startling candor. The governor’s newly appointed secretary of corrections admitted that private contractors “cherry-pick” the kind of inmates housed in the seven Florida prisons under corporate management.

State Sen. Greg Evers, at a Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing on Tuesday, had asked Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones about state policies that “led to more of privatization and handpicking of the least violent and healthiest prisoners that actually went to private prisons.”

Jones didn’t hesitate. “That’s correct sir,” she said, her words memorialized in the committee’s video archive.

“All right,” said Evers, a Panhandle Republican. “I just wanted to get that on the record.”

Jones didn’t squirm.

She made no attempt to attenuate her testimony, though she had just undermined the rationale behind the Scott administration’s years long campaign to privatize more state prisons. Supposedly, this would save taxpayers’ money through private sector efficiencies. The administration had never admitted that the cheaper costs were derived by allowing corporate operators to scarf up the least challenging, cheapest to manage prisoners.

A few minutes later, Sen. Rob Bradley, perhaps startled by Jones’ unexpected forthrightness, noted that her predecessor, Michael Crews, had assured him that the distribution of inmates to private and state-run prisons “was as random as anything in the world; that private facilities do not cherry-pick.” The North Florida Republican recalled asking Crews “that specific question.”

Sen. Bradley said, “You’re giving me a different answer; that the privates get all the easy ones and you get all the bad ones.”

Again Jones, who took over DOC on Jan. 5, refrained from obfuscation. “Yes, sir. That is my belief,” she said.

All of Tallahassee must have been wondering what the hell this woman was thinking. Not that anyone in town — from the governor on down — doubted the truth of what she was saying. But to say such a thing aloud.

Efforts to privatize state prisons have been going on for years, but after Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010, he made privatization a priority. In 2011, his minions in the state Legislature slipped a measure into the state budget that would have farmed out 29 state prisons and corrections operations in 18 South Florida counties to private contractors. The courts, however, decided that the procedure was not only sneaky but illegal.

But the private prison industry, greasing the way with campaign contributions and a cadre of lobbyists, has kept the notion alive, promising that privatization would meet the legally required 7 percent savings for the state (while keeping stockholders happy).

The data to support the penal industry’s savings claims are pretty tenuous. In 2011, a study by the Arizona Department of Corrections found that similar efficiency claims by corporate contractors in Arizona didn’t hold up, considering that private prisons there refused inmates with severe physical illness, chronic conditions, stamina issues or with “high need” mental health conditions. “It's cherry-picking,” an Arizona legislative leader told The New York Times. “They leave the most expensive prisoners with taxpayers and take the easy prisoners.”

A 2013 investigation by the Palm Beach Post found that despite the Scott administration’s claim that privatization saved money, DOC’s own data showed that four of the six adult state prisons managed by private contractors failed to meet the legally required 7 percent savings threshold. And that three of those four lockups failed to save any money compared to state-run prisons.

Last spring, the nonprofit In The Public Interest looked at 40 different studies of private prison performances in five states, including Florida, and found that none of the states had realized the savings promised by privatization. “Even in cases where private prisons appear to cost the state less per prisoner than public prisons, this may not reflect a cost savings for the prison system as a whole,” the investigation concluded. “Private prison companies are commonly able to ‘cherry-pick’ certain types of prisoners who are less expensive to house. For example, contracts often permit private prisons to exclude the following categories of incarcerated people from their facilities: maximum security, Death Row, female prisoners, or prisoners that have serious medical or mental health conditions, all of whom are more expensive to incarcerate.”

I’m sure that if you could administer a lie detector test to the governor or legislators who support privatization, you’d discover that they don’t really believe the savings myth. But it was stunning to hear Scott’s very own secretary of corrections to say it in public, especially before a key state Senate committee.

After the meeting, reporters asked Jones if she had ventured into forbidden territory when she validated allegations of the cherry-picking. Sascha Cordner of public radio’s WUSF recorded her response. “I don’t know. I’m a very plain-spoken, honest person, and we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing in order to get this thing fixed.”

Honesty, however, is not exactly a priority with this administration. Scott demonstrated last month, when he fired Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, how he regards underlings who put personal integrity ahead of the governor’s political considerations.

One could only imagine the conversation the evening after the Senate hearing between Scott’s henchman and poor Julie Jones. (Who had compounded her sin by disparaging the private contractors who’ve taken over prison medical care. “The standard of healthcare with our current providers is not at the level that is required by the contracts,” she told the senators.)

By the next day, it was obvious that Secretary Jones had been re-educated. When she appeared before the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, asked about private prison cherry-picking. “If we can recognize this is my second week and a half, I misspoke yesterday,” she said. Jones then embarked on a convoluted explanation of private prison inmate allocations that undid the persona of a plain-spoken woman.

A burst of candor on Tuesday. Snuffed out by Wednesday.