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Battle brews over Florida's idle inmates
The state prison chief says he can run inmate work efforts better than a St. Petersburg nonprofit.
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published October 19, 2007
[Scott Keeler | Times]
James McDonough, Florida's Corrections secretary, considers the company running an inmate job training program as a wasteful middleman and wants the state to take over.
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's prison chief wants to abolish the St. Petersburg nonprofit company that has provided work and job training for inmates for 26 years and survived more than its share of controversy.
Corrections Secretary James McDonough says the company, known as PRIDE, provides too few jobs for inmates, pays its top executives too much and has outlived its usefulness.
"I believe I can run it better," McDonough said. "I'm trying to maximize the number of inmates that we get to work. It's a key part of re-entry, and it reduces idleness in prisons."
State officials say less than 3 percent of Florida's 94,000 inmates currently hold jobs in prisons and that the number of jobs has steadily declined from a high of 2,900 in 1994, as the prison population has skyrocketed.
PRIDE says one-third of all inmates are eligible for work assignments -- everything from stamping license plates to making inmate uniforms -- and the rest are security risks or have medical or psychiatric problems. The prison system says twice as many inmates are qualified for such jobs.
PRIDE acknowledges that it doesn't reach at least 27,000 inmates who could be working. PRIDE general counsel Wilbur Brewton said the venture was never envisioned to employ more than 5 percent of inmates because anything more would compete with private companies.
The paltry number of inmate jobs is the state's own fault, PRIDE says. The state is PRIDE's biggest customer, but PRIDE says state purchases are not growing enough to require more jobs.
PRIDE said it was hurt in Gov. Jeb Bush's term when the prisons outsourced food service to Aramark, which hired a private vendor for related work instead of letting inmates do it.
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PRIDE, which stands for Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, was a vision of, among others, the late drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd of Clearwater, who was PRIDE's first board chairman in 1981.
One of its earliest ventures was a 50-inmate printing plant at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution in Pasco County.
PRIDE's inmate workers plant sugar cane and make an array of products, from shoes to eyeglasses to corrugated boxes, and sell them to the state, cities and counties. Sales last year totaled $78-million.
Chief executive Jack Edgemon was paid $200,000 last year and a $50,000 bonus.
PRIDE endured a scandal in recent years by losing $19-million in loans to a series of spinoff companies without fully informing the Legislature.
The agency severed all of those ties in 2004, overhauled its board of directors and imposed tighter internal controls, and net income has grown by $19-million in the past three years.
PRIDE's leaders say they deserve credit for cleaning up their own house.
"PRIDE is operating exactly as it was envisioned," said Foster Harbin III, PRIDE's vice president for public affairs. "We don't cost the taxpayers a thing, and we've paid millions of dollars in victim restitution."
Inmates earn 25 to 55 cents an hour at PRIDE, equal to about $1,100 a year. Much of that is paid in restitution to crime victims.
McDonough's determination to abolish PRIDE could become highly political.
PRIDE has friends in the Legislature and will mobilize a fierce lobbying effort to stay alive. Among its arguments will be that in tight budget times, it makes no sense to expand the size of government.
"Are they going to be pitting inmate idleness against bricks and mortar for schools?" Harbin asks. "It's not broken, so why do they have to fix it?"
* * *
McDonough's opposition to PRIDE has been clear for months, but his intentions became clearer when he quit PRIDE's board of directors in September.
He then began pitching a proposal to Gov. Charlie Crist's top aides in which the prison system would take over PRIDE's duties.
McDonough is highly respected by Crist and his staff, and he and the governor share a belief that the state does a better job of training inmates to re-enter society.
But the final decision will rest with the Republican-controlled Legislature in the 2008 regular session. Many lawmakers may be skeptical that state government can run a program better than a public-private entity.
A bigger problem may be that as inmate work programs expand, they will provide stiffer competition with free enterprise. That's a recipe for controversy in a Legislature dominated by pro-business Republicans, where the collective voices of business lobby groups often speak loudly.
McDonough insists that the state can run inmate work programs better and at no increase in cost to Florida taxpayers. How? By using PRIDE's profit margin, nearly $7-million last year.
PRIDE says that's impossible, given the array of laws and rules that apply to state agencies, which increase the cost of everything from purchasing to retirement benefits.
For example, the Department of Financial Services charges every state agency 6 cents on the dollar to keep track of money. PRIDE is exempt from that fee, known as a trust fund surcharge.
The essence of PRIDE's fight for survival is that the state can't possibly do it for less.
McDonough sees PRIDE as a wasteful middleman between idle inmates and what he calls "my" prisons, which end up buying many of PRIDE's products.
"I'll take over PRIDE. It's not going to be that hard," McDonough says with characteristic self-assuredness. "I own the buildings, the equipment is in my buildings and the labor is in my prisons."
Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.