TALLAHASSEE – In these tough budget times, lawmakers are still looking for ways to reduce the state budget, and privatizing some services has been viewed as one way to spend less.
The Florida State Conference NAACP chapter, though, is warning that it would be a major mistake for lawmakers to privatize any of Florida’s prisons, saying the move will likely make prisons far less safe places to operate.
Dale R. Landry, chairman of the NAACP’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Committee, said his organization is opposed to Senate Bill 2038, which would privatize 27 Florida prisons and work camps.
Landry said doing so would mean a private business operating the prisons would have only one central focus: to reduce the cost of running those prisons, as compared to what the state spends now. That means the quality of services provided to the inmates – including rehabilitation programs – would suffer as well.
“One of the things it raises a concern about is the quality of the service that’s done, as opposed to working with those folks who are incarcerated toward rehabilitation,” Landry said.
Florida now houses 102,000 inmates in 63 state prisons, and supervises more than 115,000 active offenders on community release supervision — the third largest prison system in the nation.
Gov. Rick Scott, though, is citing a falling crime rate in Florida as a rare opportunity to find savings within the prison system. The governor has proposed cutting $1 billion from Florida’s prison budget and transfering that money to education, and his office is closing seven state prisons and work camps by July 1. Despite the closings, the Florida Department of Corrections has insisted that no inmate would be released early, and would get transferred to other facilities.
Landry noted that in Florida, nearly 50,000 African Americans are currently incarcerated – larger than the population of some cities. Forcing the largest privatization of prison services in U.S. history would have a very negative impact on those African American inmates, including their ability to successfully reintegrate into their community once they get released from prison.
“We incarcerate predominantly poor people from a diverse group of races, but a predominant amount is African American,” Landry said. “The question we have at the NAACP is how can we work to help those people return to our community in a positive light? The whole thing is quality of service that focuses on rehabilitation. Based on the privatization of prisons, that raises the question of what is the quality of service that folks will receive?”
Advocates of privatization, he noted, have said a private business could operate one of Florida’s prisons for 7 percent less than the state now spends. But at a time when the state government is already cutting DOC’s budget, Landry said, how much deeper could those cuts go by a private firm, without endangering the health, welfare and safety of both the inmates and corrections officers and staff?
“When we look at what the state is doing, they’re already cutting the budget,” he said. “They have actually cut a lot of services way back. Now, the whole focus of private corporations is making money. They’re not about services. It’s about making money. And they’ve got to operate at 7 percent less. Their making money means they have to make cuts, and more cuts.”
Landry said he expects a privately run prison would start by reducing staff.
“The highest portion of spending on prisons is around labor and services,” he said. “So if you’re coming in to cut that, then you’ve got to reduce the work force that’s there for the rehabilitation of the inmates, and you really cut the quality of what they’re doing. And by reducing the number of guards to prisoner ratio, you set the stage for harm to be done on both sides.”
That’s why the NAACP has been lobbying so fiercely against the privatization bill, and even held a press conference on Monday at the state capital to oppose it.
“The NAACP’s position is we need to talk about the quality of service,” Landry said. “Do we have the right amount of guards to work at the prisons, and the professionalism of the guards and the folks there. The NAACP is against privatization of service to help provide security at the prisons.”
Landry said Senate staffers who study legislation and make recommendations on its impact on the budget have warned that this bill wouldn’t help reduce the budget.
“They said privatization was not going to save costs,” he said. “They said it was going to do harm and danger.” The bill’s supporters, he said, have “wasted the taxpayers money deliberating on this foolishness.”
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