April 3, 2011- The Legislature's push to privatize many more prisons, its most far-reaching cost-cutting plan in years, opens a lucrative door to politically connected vendors who stand to profit.
Senate and House budgets require the state to privatize prisons in South Florida, home to one-fifth of the statewide inmate population of 101,000. The region is the home of the GEO Group, the nation's second-largest private prison operator that currently runs two private prisons, including the largest private lockup, Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton.
GEO also operates five state psychiatric hospitals, including South Florida State Hospital in Pembroke Pines, which got its long-sought accreditation following GEO's takeover.
The Boca Raton company, a reliable contributor to the Republican Party, employs more than 2,000 people and a stable of 16 well-connected Capitol lobbyists. It donated $25,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's inaugural celebration in January. A top transition budget adviser to Scott, Donna Arduin, is a former trustee of a GEO real estate company, Correctional Properties Trust. The company's health care subsidiary, GEO Care, is led by Jorge Dominicis, a familiar figure in the Capitol from years of lobbying on behalf of the sugar industry.
In recent testimony before the Senate, Dominicis touted the advantages of privatization and said his firm achieves savings through higher staffing ratios — more inmates per staff member.
"The private sector can more easily be held accountable. Government tailors contracts to ensure outcomes," he said. "The way we should move forward is with no preconceived notions."
GEO's main competitors are Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison operator, and Management and Training Corp.
The Senate's more aggressive plan would outsource prisons and probation services in an 18-county region from Bradenton to Key West, while the House would privatize prisons and probation only in Miami-Dade and Broward.
Under both proposals, private vendors would have to run prisons for at least 7 percent less money than state-run prisons.
The powerful lawmaker championing the privatization push, Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, says the vendors will be chosen through open competition by the Department of Corrections, not by legislators.
"I don't know who it would benefit," Alexander said. "We hope to have multiple bidders. We would go through a full procurement process and take the best bids possible."
Some of the early momentum for prison privatization came from a policy brief by the Reason Foundation, a conservative think tank with the GEO Group among its many donors, and Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed policy group. The groups proposed a privately run continuum of care model for prisoners in two regions of the state.