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State prison chief wants major changes in inmate work program
The corrections secretary is butting heads with a St. Petersburg company that runs the operation.
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee bureau chief
Published November 28, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - A clash of wills is intensifying between Florida's top prison official and a St. Petersburg-based firm that provides jobs for inmates, with the state demanding that the firm turn over $1.3-million it says belong to taxpayers.
The fight involves the future of PRIDE Enterprises and its mission of teaching trades to inmates so they are less likely to commit new crimes once they're released.
Corrections Secretary James McDonough says PRIDE is a failure because it employs a stagnant 2 percent of inmates at a time of massive prison population growth. That makes it much harder to reduce the rate of recidivism in prisons, he said.
"PRIDE has lost its way," McDonough said. "It has had 25 years, and it hasn't grown. In fact, it has shrunk. That's just not acceptable."
The debate over PRIDE's future has taken another turn: McDonough says PRIDE owes the state more than $1-million since 2004 for mistakenly keeping money that belongs to taxpayers.
PRIDE disagrees and says the state overlooked a provision in state law that allows it to use the money for PRIDE's operations. McDonough says a federal law requires that the money revert to the state.
The disputed money represents the cost of room and board that PRIDE collected from inmates holding prison jobs.
PRIDE is an acronym that stands for Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Development Enterprises. It was created in the early 1980s by the late drug store magnate Jack Eckerd, among others.
PRIDE lays much of the blame for the lack of new inmate jobs squarely on the prison system itself, which it says spends 60 percent less on PRIDE products now than it did in 2000.
In addition, the firm says, the decision to privatize prison food services deprived PRIDE of a lucrative subsidiary business selling cleaning solvents for use in kitchens. The vendor, Aramark, hired its own subsidiary.
The question today is whether McDonough can convince legislators that the Department of Corrections, with its own checkered history of inefficiency and ineptitude, can do a better job of employing inmates and teaching them job skills than PRIDE.
In about two weeks, a Senate committee that oversees prisons, headed by Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, will hold a hearing on McDonough's proposal.
Sen. Crist is on record as opposing any attempts to make PRIDE part of the prison system, but has said he welcomes McDonough's ideas and will give them a full, fair hearing.
Also on the committee are Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, a former Citrus County sheriff, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat.
McDonough's insistence on overhauling PRIDE comes as he and the agency are making a major push to reduce inmate idleness in prisons by teaching vocational skills, and to reduce the number of inmates who re-offend after release and end up back behind bars. A third of inmates are imprisoned within three years of their release.
McDonough's formal business plan would let PRIDE continue to function, but it would lose its independence and be placed under the control of a six-member oversight board. The prison system would manage all of PRIDE's contracts. The governor's economic development office and Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private job-promotion agency, would search for new businesses to create jobs for inmates - in direct competition with PRIDE.
"He's decentralizing accountability," PRIDE spokesman Foster Harbin said. "You can see the shell game that's going to go on there."
PRIDE officials say McDonough's 13-page proposal conspicuously avoids any detailed explanation of the annual budget.
"There's nothing in here about how much this costs," said PRIDE attorney Wilbur Brewton.
McDonough has said he can run the new program on PRIDE's net income, nearly $7-million last year.
Under McDonough's plan, private companies could run inmate work programs in construction, manufacturing and agriculture, in competition with PRIDE. He supports repeal of a law that requires state agencies to buy products from PRIDE if they are of comparable price and quality as those in the private sector.
McDonough claims, and PRIDE officials agree, that state agencies sometimes buy products from PRIDE to avoid the hassle of protracted bid protests from private companies seeking state business.
PRIDE says the present system is better because PRIDE must answer for its performance without receiving any taxpayer money.
PRIDE says it is naive to expect that private firms would jump at the chance to run inmate work programs for a basic reason. "People are leery of working with inmates," Harbin said.
Regardless of whether he succeeds, McDonough said it is important that a vigorous debate take place over PRIDE's performance.
He has vetted his proposed changes with two of Gov. Charlie Crist's advisers, Lori Rowe and Randy Ball. Though Crist has not public endorsed the plan, McDonough said the governor gave him free rein to pursue it.
"Let's get it out in the open," McDonough said. "Let's have a discussion on it."