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State will seek private prison plans, but ...

The Department of Corrections said Thursday it will solicit proposals from private companies seeking to operate 30 prisons and work camps in an 18-county region of South Florida. But the state won't award a contract until an ongoing lawsuit is resolved.

A brief statement from the prison system, distributed to media outlets at 5 p.m., said the agency would "reopen the procurement process" because Attorney General Pam Bondi appealed a circuit court decision declaring the privatization plan unconstitutional. The statement said the appeal "had the effect of staying the circuit court's order in accordance with Rule 9.310(b)(2), Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure." An agency spokeswoman said the prison system's general counsel, Jennifer Parker, approved the action.

Proposals are due at the prison system by 2 p.m. next Thursday, Nov. 10. The proposal is believed to be the largest prison outsourcing venture ever undertaken at one time in the U.S. Florida taxpayers now pay about $310-million to operate those prisons, including the state's only high-security prison for women, Broward Correctional Institution in Pembroke Pines.

Three firms could submit proposals to run the prisons: Geo Group of Boca Raton, Corrections Corp. of America of Nashville and MTC Corp. of Utah. The proviso language that's at the heart of the lawsuit requires a vendor to run the prisons for at least 7 percent less than the state paid to operate them. Hundreds of correctional officers and other prison workers have resigned their jobs in recent months, anticipating their prisons would be taken over by private firms. The bidding process was immediately suspended in August when Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford issued an order declaring the venture illegal.    

-- Steve Bousquet