A prison plan fit for lockup

Published May 4, 2007

Admittedly it gets harder each year for the Florida Legislature to do something so foolish that it deserves special censure. This qualifies: Lawmakers will allow only two companies to bid on a $15-million to $20-million prison construction project.

Odd if the state is trying to keeps bids low through competition. But what makes this action remarkably foolish is that the two companies named are under criminal investigation for overcharging the state $4.5-million for prison operations. It's like a bank asking famed bank robber Willie Sutton to bid on the security contract.

Just three months ago, Gov. Charlie Crist asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America for "any criminal violations" related to state contracts. A state audit of the companies two years ago found a variety of irregularities in payments made to those two companies. They were paid millions for jobs that went vacant, for cost-of-living adjustments that were never passed on to employees and for maintenance that was never done.

GEO settled its dispute with the state for pennies on the dollar, reimbursing taxpayers for a little over $400, 000. No compromise has been reached with Corrections Corporation of America. State officials deserve some blame in those contracts because the now-defunct Correctional Privatization Commission was little more than a patsy for the private-prison industry.

Now the Legislature has muddled the situation more by adding the bid requirements to the overall $84-million budget allocation for private-prison operations. And guess which lawmaker justified the contract wording: Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. It was Sen. Crist who called for the criminal investigation in the first place. His excuse for limiting the bids: "It's cheaper."

Maybe so, if you don't count the millions of dollars the companies' may have cheated the state out of in the past. But isn't this a credibility issue?

If the state blithely hands out bids to companies it is also investigating for their business practices, it is sending a message that goes something like this: Please rip us off. Actually, turning prison operations over to private companies is a bad idea in every way, and the sooner the state is out of it the better.

Gov. Crist should use his line-item veto to cut this expenditure out of the budget until other companies can be allowed to bid or the criminal investigation clears GEO and Corrections Corporation of America. Money that is needed to meet existing private-prison contracts can be added back into the budget during an upcoming legislative special session.

Sometimes cheap isn't good, or right.