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Prison enterprise a powerful force in backrooms, behind bars

By Pat Beall - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

PROFIT, POLITICS, PAIN - Huge profits and sweet setups for Wall Street darlings; rape, squalor, murder in lockups - and the price for Florida taxpayers

Behind the bars of Florida’s private prisons is a multibillion-dollar juggernaut, steamrolling lawmakers, inmates and taxpayers alike.

Hard-ball politics, lavish campaign contributions and back-room maneuvering fuel Florida’s private prison deals, The Palm Beach Post found in an eight-month investigation.

Contracts promising millions in taxpayer savings are based on phantom costs and a contrived formula. Strip away the formula and three of Florida’s six private prisons for adults save no money at all, The Post found.

Track records of dangerously low numbers of corrections officers — including local guards with criminal backgrounds — and reports of squalor, rape and riots dog corporate prison operators.

Still, the contracts keep coming. Roughly one of every 10 Florida prisoners is held in a privately managed state lockup. Last year, the state Senate came within one vote of handing virtually all of South Florida’s prisons to a single for-profit business.

There is muscle behind the deals. Two of the three companies operating Florida prisons — Boca Raton-based GEO Group Inc. and Nashville’s Corrections Corporation of America — are acknowledged industry giants, Wall Street darlings praised for generous returns to stockholders and political acumen.

The two companies shower millions on lawmakers and lobbyists. Allies are embedded in top government posts, part of an influential revolving door between the industry and its regulators.

Sweetheart deals stuff private prisons with the cheapest, least troublesome prisoners, leaving Florida public prisons with the sickest and most violent inmates. State law guarantees companies are paid as if their prisons are 90 percent full, even if they aren’t, and even if it means emptying parts of public prisons to pack them.

Audits, security reports, lawsuits, government records and state and federal investigations in 21 states unveil a startling pattern of murder, riots and sexual assault at private prisons nationwide. Often, those failures stem from not enough guards.

Nine major riots erupted since 2000. At least 25 inmates died amid claims of mistreatment, inadequate medical care or in riots. Three prisons for teenagers were shuttered between 2000 and 2012 after discoveries of squalor and sex abuse. A women’s prison was emptied after widespread reports of rape by staff.

At Florida’s state-run prisons in the same 12-year period: No major damage or severe injuries from riots; no closures over squalor; no Justice Department investigations over human rights.

The prisons have at times turned to guards with little experience, training them on the job. At one prison analyzed by The Post, the arrest records of guards rival the records of prisoners they are hired to watch.

GEO, CCA and Management & Training Corp., which manage Florida’s seven private prisons, rebuff such criticisms. “Our company has always been committed to protecting human rights, and we have always adhered to the highest standards in our industry,” GEO Vice President Pablo Paez said.

Even absent abuses, though, critics blanch at putting for-profit corporations in charge of locking people up.

“When you take away freedom from people and say we can compel you to do things, and if you don’t, we are prepared to use force, well, that should be a government function,” said Jim McDonough, a Jeb Bush-era head of Florida’s Department of Corrections.

But Tallahassee spent almost half a billion dollars on privately run prisons between 2009 and 2012, and there’s no indication those contracts are going away.

“Privatization is far from dead in Florida,” predicts Michael Hallet, chairman of the University of North Florida’s Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice. “It’s alive and well.”

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