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Return of prison privatization sets off a furor

Rebuffed by a court, the Legislature is again pushing to privatize more than two dozen South Florida prisons, and the plan appears more controversial than ever because of a new layer of secrecy.

Before a standing-room-only crowd, the Senate Rules Committee voted Wednesday to introduce bills (now numbered SB 2036 and SB 2038) directing the prison system to hire a for-profit vendor to run prisons in 18 counties by July 1. A second bill (2036) would eliminate a requirement that the prison system do a cost benefit analysis and develop a "business case" to justify privatization. The new bill does not require those steps until after a contractor is hired. But the choice is subject to approval by a panel of legislators.

As Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker listened intently from one side of the room, current and former correctional officers testified in opposition to no avail. Reshae Cherry, 27, an officer at Charlotte Correctional on Florida's southwest coast, pleaded for senators not to jeopardize her future. "I want to keep food on my table. I want a good doctor for my children," she testified.

Prison privatization is once again being championed by Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the powerful budget chairman who said the Legislature has no choice but to find ways to save money. Privatizing South Florida prisons will save from $22 to $45 million a year, he said. "These are real dollars. These are difficult decisions," Alexander told reporters.

Two Democratic senators voted against introducing the two bills: Sens. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale and Gwen Margolis of Aventura, who said the secrecy language was "very disturbing." A third Democrat, Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando, voted to introduce the bills.

--Steve Bousquet