Perhaps no figure has irritated critics so much as the 90 percent rule: Even as Florida’s prison population declines, private prisons are paid as though the lockups are 90 percent full, whether they are or not.
So, in its first month of operation, when Blackwater River prison had an average population of 324, the state paid Boca Raton-based GEO Group Inc. more than $82,000 a day to run it, the price for 1,800 prisoners.
That’s not a contract option. State law decrees the 90 percent payments.
It’s a 1993 law written in large part by Charles Thomas, a former University of Florida professor specializing in prison issues.
Thomas, then a paid consultant to Florida’s private prison oversight panel, was fined by the state’s ethics commission for his financial interests in Corrections Corporation of America. CCA manages four Florida prisons.
Thomas believes the 90 percent rule was needed, but not to ensure profits. Some feared the Department of Corrections would undermine private prisons.
“They could really sink the ship by keeping the prison just 20 percent full,” he said.
Typically, if the prisoner count tops 90 percent, the state gets a financial break. And most private prisons in Florida are at or near full capacity, meaning the state is not paying for empty beds.
That hasn’t mollified critics.
“The notion that any prison, public or private, is guaranteed to be 90 percent filled whether crime is going up or down is absurd,” said Judith Greene, a criminal justice policy expert and director of Justice Strategies Inc., a research and advocacy group.
It’s also dangerous, said Paula Dockery, the former Lakeland state senator who opposed the Legislature’s 2012 massive prison privatization plan.
“We are incentivizing imprisoning people,” said Dockery. “That is in no way good for the state.”