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Fear and loathing of prison privatization

With desperation in their voices, dozens of prison employees urged lawmakers Monday to slow down or drop plans to privatize all prisons in South Florida. As expected, the Senate Rules Committee forged ahead with two bills, moving them to the Senate Budget Committee Wednesday.

By a 10-4 vote, senators passed the privatization venture (SB 2038), an earlier version of which is blocked by a court decision. Republican Sen. Dennis Jones of Seminole joined Democrats Larcenia Bullard, Gwen Margolis and Chris Smith in opposition. A second bill (SB 2036) that addresses the criticism of the court case passed 9-5, with Democrat Gary Siplin joining the opponents. That bill is more controversial because it allows privatization to proceed with more secrecy than now.

Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, defended both bills as necessary in an era of constant budget cutting. "I don't have a particular bias for public or private but I am charged, for one more year, with making every dollar count," Alexander said. "Competition makes us all better. It's uncomfortable, it's not always fun, but I believe that it makes us better."

In breaking with his own party on a key vote, Jones won loud applause from the packed house of correctional officers, some of whom had driven hundreds of miles to speak. "I am not willing to balance the state budget on the backs of law enforcement and public safety at this time," Jones told senators.

The mood in the room was tense. Correctional officers spoke of losing their jobs and homes, and accused lawmakers of endangering public safety to save money. Amanda Abers, 28, moved to Florida from Minnesota a year ago to work at a youthful offender prison in Indian River County, one of seven marked for closure by the state. "Vero Beach is not a very big area," she testified. "This is going to hit the economy very, very hard."

But the workers knew they had little hope of success. "This board is stacked with the governor's lackeys," said Brett Pruett, a correctional officer at Santa Rosa Correctional in Milton, who wore a gold Teamsters lapel pin, signifying the prison guards' new union. The bills' next stop, on Wednesday, is a committee chaired by the pro-privatization Alexander.

-- Steve Bousquet