Failure of the private state prisons

Miami Herald Editorial Board

State Rep. David Richardson (left) inspecting Florida’s Suwannee Correctional Institution.
State Rep. David Richardson (left) inspecting Florida’s Suwannee Correctional Institution. Courtesy of David Richardson

It seems that the privatization of prisons, at least in Florida, is not as profitable a business for taxpayers as one might want to believe.

Democrat Rep. David Richardson (D-Miami Beach), a CPA, has been investigating the contracts and operation of private prisons in the state.

And according to Richardson’s expert assessments, the savings that Gov. Rick Scott sought by awarding contracts to private operators to maintain the prison system have not materialized. Fooled again. Worse still: in some cases, the private operators have been costlier to the public coffers than if the operation of the prisons had been left in the state’s hands. Go figure.

An example: Richardson points out that in 2011, the governor’s office promised $550,000-a-year savings by hiring private companies to take over six programs that employed prisoners in the final months of their sentences. Richardson, however, came to the conclusion that the private management of these programs has actually caused the state of Florida losses of no less than $3.3 million over the past three years. Imagine that.

But private prison contractors insist they do save money for the state because they reduce cases of recidivism in prisoners, thanks to their educational and training programs. A hypothesis that Richardson has not been able to confirm.

And the problem is not just a monetary one. In examining a private prison, namely the Gadsden Correctional Institution in North Florida, Richardson found that the prison saved money, but in a reprehensible way: it deprived inmates of necessary services such as heating, hot water and medical care.

The privately-owned management company, Management Training Corp., based in Centerville, Utah, said it was correcting those problems. This company must confront and solve this problem once and for all.

Reality is that at the national level, private prisons have caused more problems than they have solved.

One glaring reality is that in privately-run prisons there are more incidents than in institutions run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, namely assaults among inmates.

In May 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it planned to end the use of private prisons by not renewing the contracts of those companies, and allowing the gradual return to state and federally-run prisons.

In addition, in recent years both the news media and human rights organizations have reported poor conditions and mistreatment of inmates in private prisons, conditions similar to those that Richardson has found in Florida.

A common denominator unveiled in the complaints is that the pursuit of savings in the prison system leads to shortcomings, mainly the mistreatment of prisoners.

The United States is the country with the largest prison population in the world. Private companies have benefited from this national tragedy.

Private companies try to negotiate contracts with state governments, arguing that they are taking a burden off the public administration.

But the result is often far less convenient than if the prisons were left under the state’s jurisdiction.

That is the conclusion Richardson has reached through his investigations of Florida’s privately-run prisons. Instead of staying silent, the state government must give a clear answer about what is happening behind bars.