March 31, 2010
A proposal from the Florida Senate to shutter some prisons is sending an economic shiver through many small towns where state correctional facilities are among the biggest employers.
Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil said Tuesday that the proposal to close two not-yet-named prisons and privatize a third could lead to early releases of some inmates, though he acknowledged that’s not what lawmakers intend.
Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who chairs a Senate committee overseeing criminal justice spending, said McNeil’s statement was based on a misunderstanding of the closure provision, but he said McNeil was correct that it would save only about $6 million a year rather than $20 million previously estimated.
A protest against the closure ban drew McNeil, local government officials, correctional officers and business people from several rural communities Tuesday to a grocery store parking in the Florida Panhandle town of Sneads, 43 miles west of Tallahassee.
With a population of about 2,000, Sneads is home to Apalachee Correctional Institution. It provides jobs for about 640 people and is considered a likely target for shuttering.
“In a community the size of Sneads, it is the lifeblood,” said Jeremy Branch, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. “Our economy in Jackson County is based on prisons and peanuts.”
Jackson has the state’s second largest inmate population housed in one federal and two state prisons, two state work camps and three juvenile detention facilities. It’s also the nation’s third-leading peanut-producing county.
“It’s virtually impossible especially for a small-to-medium range farmer to survive any more,” Branch said. “If we lose our prisons on top of that and those good, steady paying jobs that prisons provide, who knows what will happen to this county.”
That question’s being asked across the Panhandle where nearly every county has a state prison, the kind of economic development shunned in urban areas.
The prison issue is expected to come up when the Senate begins floor debate on the budget (SB 2700) Wednesday with a vote on the bill expected Thursday. The House version (HB 500) also will be up for floor action the same two days, but it does not include prison closures.
The proposal by Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, would fully open the new Blackwater Correctional Facility in Milton, about 20 miles northeast of Pensacola, as a private facility operated by Boca Raton-based Geo Group Inc. It would be filled with inmates from the two older prisons that would be shut down.
“It would be an absolute travesty to the people of Florida who paid for a $100-plus million and not open it in a cost effective manner,” Alexander said.
He said the state would save money because Geo charges a daily fee of $41 per inmate compared to $65 in state prison expenses. McNeil, however, said the cost at a state-run prison is only $48.
Alexander said he’s from a small town and knows what it’s like to lose a major industry, but he has to look out for what’s best for taxpayers.
“It’s difficult, no doubt about it, but there was no promise to keep it forever,” Alexander said.
Crist’s committee had proposed shutting three large dormitories at different prisons rather than closing an entire facility because the state would still have to maintain the buildings and could face other costs resulting from layoffs. That proposal would have resulted in about 1,000 layoffs.
Alexander’s panel adopted other cost-cutting steps to prevent most of the layoffs. McNeil failed to consider that when he estimated his department would lose 2,000 positions, a cut so drastic that it could lead to overcrowding and court-ordered releases, Crist said.
The previously reported estimate of $20 million in savings was for several years not just one, Crist said.
“We dispute that there’s any cost savings at all,” said James Baiardi, president of the State Correctional Officers Chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.
Baiardi said private prisons get only the best behaved inmates and have a cap on medical expenses, with the state picking up the excess or taking back prisoners.
“On the one hand the Senate is passing a bill to stimulate jobs,” Baiardi said. “On the other hand they’re wasting millions of dollars putting people, hardworking, honest people, out of work.”
By BILL KACZOR
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