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State runs prisons better than companies, chief says

Published August 3, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Private companies are good at financing and building prisons, but the state is better at running them, state Corrections Secretary James McDonough said.

Florida has five privately owned and operated prisons and a sixth under construction, but McDonough said Tuesday that he was unsure if there will be any more.

"In some areas, we've saved the state a lot of money by outsourcing," McDonough said during a radio call-in show on WFLA-FM. "The inmates in that system are still mine. I still have the obligation to make sure that they're properly taken care of, and even more important, that they're secured."

An internal audit by the Department of Management Services last year said the state overpaid for private prison operations by nearly $13-million.

Private prisons still are cheaper because Florida law requires they be paid at least 7 percent less per inmate than state-owned facilities, Gov. Jeb Bush said Wednesday.

"I do believe that the prison system by-and-large will remain, and should remain, public in nature," Bush said. "It's probably healthy to have private prisons just to keep everybody honest, to make sure we're controlling costs."

McDonough has spent the last six months cleaning up a contracting scandal and other problems at the Corrections Department. The two companies that run the state's private prisons, Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, and GEO Group of Boca Raton, have not been implicated.

Bush fired McDonough's predecessor, James Crosby, who pleaded guilty last month in federal court to taking kickbacks from a company that sold snacks and other items at a prison canteen. Another former prison official also pleaded guilty in that case.

CCA marketing director Steve Owen said the state has benefited from privatization, noting the company's facilities have met a requirement to operate for at least 7 percent less than state-owned prisons.

A GEO spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

McDonough's comments were welcomed by David Murrel, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents state prison guards.

"The public, the government can do a better job of running prisons than private corporations who are just at it to make a buck," Murrel said.

[Last modified August 3, 2006, 08:09:30]

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