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    A Times Editorial

    Private prison problems

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 27, 2000

    Florida isn't the only state that farms out some of its convicts to privately run prisons, but it is unique in having a special board to issue and manage those contracts. The 1993 Legislature, in mistrusting the Department of Corrections to be fair toward its so-called competition, mistakenly failed to reckon with the risk that the special agency it was about to set up, the Correctional Privatization Commission, might be biased the other way.

    One of the commission's consultants, University of Florida Professor Charles Thomas, agreed last year to a record $20,000 fine following an investigation by the Florida Commission on Ethics into his lucrative simultaneous relationships with Wackenhut Corrections and Corrections Corp. of America, which run Florida's five privatized adult prisons. Now, the ethics commission is conducting a widely publicized -- though still officially unconfirmed -- investigation into allegations against the Privatization Commission's executive director, C. Mark Hodges.

    According to the Police Benevolent Association, which also brought the case against Thomas, Hodges should not have taken an $1,800 honorarium from one of the agency's contractors and may be using his Florida position to secure consulting contracts of his own in other states. Hodges has acknowledged no error other than belated disclosure of the honorarium.

    At the Capitol, where Wackenhut has weighed in with some $200,000 in political contributions since 1996, most legislators might prefer to ignore the PBA's charges on the premise that the union, which represents officers at Department of Corrections facilities, is simply opposed to privatization. But now, there's more at issue than that.

    The Florida Corrections Commission, an oversight agency charged with the welfare of all Florida's prisoners, has recommended that the Legislature abolish the Privatization Commission for failing to properly monitor the private prisons. In the case of a women's prison in Gadsden County, only one monthly report had been turned over out of 18 months requested.

    "Basically, they're not doing their job," said the oversight panel's executive director, John Fuller.

    Among other things, the oversight commission cited "four- and five-month gaps" and said Privatization Commission staffers had admitted that information was not collected in a standard format lest it "lend itself to comparisons among the five contracted private correctional facilities."

    These are serious charges that demand the governor's attention, and the Legislature's, regardless of Wackenhut's influences or their own preferences for privatization. The custody of prisoners is a solemn state function that should be delegated, if at all, only with the greatest care.

    The oversight panel recommended that the Department of Corrections supervise the private contracts. That doesn't sit well with Rep. Allen Trovillion, R-Winter Park, chair of the House Corrections Committee and a strong critic of the current management at the Department of Corrections. He says the private prisons are doing a better job than the state-run prisons when it comes to education and job training.

    If that is true, as it may be, it's largely because the Legislature has been stingier toward the public prisons than the privatized ones. That may be good for generating "tough on crime" headlines, but it is terribly penny-wise and pound-foolish.

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