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Do private prisons save money as promised? Legislature doesn't know but keeps approving

Richardson and Poppell at GadsdenWhen he was first elected, Florida Gov. Rick Scott was so determined to meet his campaign promise of saving $1 billion on prisons that he pushed through a series of contracts with private operators that on paper claimed to produce millions in annual savings.

But the promised savings have never materialized, according to audits done by Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who has been a one-man investigation unit into Florida’s troubled prison system. Many of the contracts, which were required to save at least 7 percent a year, actually cost the state more money than taxpayers would have spent if the programs had never been privatized. In some cases, he also found, medical care and access to programming in the private facilities was often worse.

“This is not saving the state money because they are more efficient; they are saving money as a contractor because they are denying goods and services to the inmates,” Richardson said.

His most recent prison audit, a review of Gadsden Correctional Facility in North Florida, found that the prison run by Management Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah, saved money by withholding heat, hot water, educational supplies and medical care for inmates for months. (The warden has resigned, and the company says it is addressing concerns.)

The governor’s goal to privatize dozens of prisons was thwarted by the state Senate in 2012, but he succeeded in advancing contracts with two healthcare companies to turn over prison medical care to private contractors. Legislators made sure that the contracts with the private vendors were not managed at the Department of Corrections, where career bureaucrats might be threatened by the private competitors, and moved them to the Department of Management Services, which has expertise in contracts, but not prisons.

Richardson discovered that in their zeal to hand over prison operations to private vendors, neither the governor’s office, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Management Services, nor the Legislature’s auditors ever went back to check whether the savings were valid.

On Thursday, Florida lawmakers are poised to adopt draft House and Senate budgets that Richardson says embed the same phantom savings into the budget for another year. Story here. 

Photo: Rep. David Richardson was joined by former Department of Management Secretary Chad Poppell at a visit to Gadsden Correctional Facility in North Florida, a private prison whose contract is managed by DMS. Photo courtesy of Rep. David Richardson.

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