The prison system in Florida needs reform: Here’s an issue where South Florida liberals can finally agree with their tea party overlords in Tallahassee. Theoretically, anyway.
To us liberals, the prison system is one of the most racist, socially destructive institutions in America. It locks up a disproportionate number of minorities and it stubbornly refuses to acknowledge advancements in social science, which finds that counseling, addiction treatment, and job training — as opposed to warehousing convicts — can help an offender become a productive, law-abiding member of the community.
To tea party Republicans, all that matters is shrinking government, and the prison system is an expensive, wasteful part of that government.
So if both sides are true to their cause, they would both get what they want: Liberals could have a more humane, sensible prison system where inmates can get out earlier by gaining job skills; and as that incarcerated population shrinks, so do costs, meaning conservatives have lessened the tax burden.
Unfortunately, one of these partners is not serious about reform. Predictably, it’s the tea party Republicans, authors of the idiotic (or corrupt — take your pick) idea to privatize the state’s prisons.
Mercifully, the measure failed Tuesday in the Florida Senate by two votes.
Terrific, but that still doesn’t explain why the Florida House was ready to privatize prisons, nor why Florida Governor Rick Scott was ready to sign the bill into law. Why wasn’t this bill dead on arrival?
There is no evidence that privatizing prisons saves a state money. Wait! I just found a study that shows a private prison system cost 1 percent less. How did they deliver these dramatic savings? By laying off some prison guards.
I guess that’s another way to reduce the prison population — make it easier for inmates to escape.
The Florida Republicans’ proposal would have required private contractors to operate prisons at a rate 7 percent cheaper than the Department of Corrections does now. That would be a savings of $16.5 million annually.
A drop in the bucket — it probably costs that much to do the studies and spend the time debating this notion in the Florida Legislature.
There are already private prisons in Florida, and they cost about the same as the public ones.
Clearly, the only way that private contractors would be able to deliver savings compared to public prisons would be to lay off guards and cut services to inmates — meaning health care, counseling, job skills training, food, and every other act of decency that still occurs beyond the barbed wire.
Whatever minuscule savings came in the short term, the contractors were positioned to negotiate terms that would be far more generous for themselves over the long term, because those contractors would have effectively monopolized the business of running correctional facilities.
Of course, the way these private contractors spread campaign dollars around the Republican legislature should have been a clue that this was a bad deal for taxpayers.
The champions of privatization are mourning its defeat today. They should cheer up. They still have a justice system that targets minorities and a prison system that keeps young people locked up during their late teens and 20s, allowing them to mingle with more sophisticated criminals, the better to commit crimes after they’re released — and then return for an even longer stay in prison. It shatters families, ensuring that incarceration is a tradition passed from one generation to the next.
Florida’s prisons may not be private, but they’re still a public disgrace.