On Valentine’s Day this year, Florida almost made the unprecedented move to privatize 29 of its prisons, but the legislation was narrowly defeated. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the state prison guard unions were able to squeak out a victory, and the ACLU said:
The defeat of the privatization bill is a victory for Florida. As Julie Ebenstein, Policy & Advocacy Counsel at the ACLU of Florida, explained shortly after the bill’s defeat: “Florida’s prison system needs reform, but private prisons aren’t reform – they deform the process by linking corporate profit to incarceration. The bottom line is that private prisons make money by keeping people in prison when we should be looking for ways to keep them out in the first place.”
This win against privatization was surprising because of the powerful forces of the private prison industry, especially because the two largest private prison companies, the Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), had poured campaign money into the state to get a chance to run these privatized prisons and perhaps move to privatize the rest of the prisons in Florida. The Florida House and Senate lawmakers, fueled by that campaign money, had been trying to slip a proviso to privatize these prisons into another bill last fall hoping that it would sneak through. The union at that time for the prison guards, the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), caught wind of this effort, which would affect 16,000 prisoners, and filed suit to stop this legislative effort, claiming that it would threaten public safety (and their jobs) and claiming that Florida law required that any attempt at privatizing state entities or contracts had to show that it was cost effective.
A Florida court agreed and, according to an exhaustive investigation by Prison Legal News:
The court further found that the FDOC [Florida Department of Corrections] had not prepared any “cost comparison study, cost-benefit analysis, or business case study analysis.”… Also, “it appears that the rush to meet the deadlines in the proviso has resulted in many shortcomings in the evaluation of whether privatization is in the best public interest as it relates to cost savings and effective services.”
The private prison advocates, flush with cash from the industry, tried again to pass a bill while pressing state officials to say that the privatizing was cost effective. The effort to pass this bill was a case study in self-dealing and influence peddling at its best, along with trying to force state officials to fudge the legal justifications. This story by Prison Legal News, written by David M. Reutter, outlines these efforts including forcing out a FDOC official who did not sign on to phony studies, a state official who wrote up some of the review contracts to benefit her husband’s firm, blatant conflicts of interest by a hired consultant to the state to study the problems, attempts to document results after the fact and whipping up unproven claims that the state prison system would save 7 percent a year by privatizing these prisons.
The efforts to privatize more prisons in Florida had lost in this round, but the Geo Group and CCA have spent a combined $580,000 in lobby fees to try to get this bill through and have given lawmakers around $1 million to lawmakers’ campaign funds. There is no doubt that these companies and others will go another round to try to privatize more and more of Florida’s prisons. Florida currently already has seven private prisons.
Why the big push to privatize prisons in Florida? There are efforts to privatize prisons all over the United States, but Florida is a ripe target. Florida has a Republican governor and legislature that wants more and more privatization of government and it has the third-largest prison population in the nation. It also has had an explosive growth of prisons over the years – it had around 20,000 prisoners in 1980 and now it has 101,000 prisoners. This growth has led to chronic overcrowding and Florida has been under federal court order to reduce the crowding.
One of the biggest pressures to privatize Florida prisons is because of its rigid mandatory sentencing laws; it will have an almost guaranteed expanding prison population. According to a Pew Center Study as reported by The Associated Press, Florida already leads the nation for the longest prison terms and has a “whopping 166 percent increase in the estimated average time that released prisoners spent behind bars over a 19-year span.” The Pew report also found that in 2009, Florida spent an extra $1.4 billion on prisons because of the longer prison terms. The study concludes that Florida’s mandatory sentencing laws, especially their “10-20-Life” law, were a major factor for the longest prison terms.
This law, passed in 1999, inflicts increasingly severe mandatory sentences for crimes involving guns. As the State of Florida explains it:
- Mandates a minimum 10 year prison term for certain felonies, or attempted felonies in which the offender possesses a firearm or destructive device
- Mandates a minimum 20 year prison term when the firearm is discharged
- Mandates a minimum 25 years to LIFE if someone is injured or killed
- Mandates a minimum 3 year prison term for possession of a firearm by a felon
- Mandates that the minimum prison term is to be served consecutively to any other term of imprisonment imposed
As it has been found with other severe mandatory minimum sentences in other states such as California, this law quickly filled up the Florida state prisons. While gun violence is not to be downplayed, this law tied the hands of judges who were not allowed to match the sentences to the severity of the crimes.
Groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and reporters have found some disturbing cases of how this law has been taken to the extreme in a way that legislators never imagined. According to FAMM:
In September 2009, [Ronald] Thompson was visiting an elderly friend in Keystone Heights, FL when the friend’s 17-year-old grandson and his friends came home and demanded entry into the family home. Acting at the direction of the boy’s mother, Thompson’s friend told the boy he was not permitted to enter. Her refusal prompted an angry outburst by the 17-year-old. Fearing that his friend was being threatened, Thompson, a lawful gun owner, fired two warning shots into the ground to scare away the boy, who left. The judge presiding over the case concluded that neither shot was intended to hit the boy.
Despite the fact that no one was injured, Thompson was charged with four counts of aggravated assault by State Attorney Angela Corey. A jury found that Mr. Thompson’s actions violated the state’s aggravated assault law and because he discharged a gun, he faced a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years under the 10-20-Life gun law. At sentencing, Judge John Skinner refused to impose the 20-year mandatory prison sentence, calling it “a crime in itself” and unconstitutional under Florida’s Constitution. Ms. Corey’s office appealed the sentence and an appellate court imposed the 20-year mandatory minimum.
(A few days ago, a Florida judge released Thompson until he could have a new trial.)
Another example is the fate of Marissa Alexander as reported by CNN’s Roland Martin:
Alexander says that on August 1, 2010, her husband went into a rage and tried to strangle her after reading some text messages she sent to her ex-husband. She fled the family home, got to the garage and realized she didn’t have her keys. Fearing for her life, she says she grabbed a gun and went back into the home to retrieve her keys.
She says her husband threatened to kill her and to keep him at bay, she fired a warning shot into a wall.
Why was she charged, convicted and sentenced? Because State Attorney Angela Corey, the same prosecutor leading the Trayvon Martin case, said the gun was fired near a bedroom where two children were and they could have been injured.
Did the bullet hit the children? No. Did Alexander point the gun at her husband and hit him? No. She simply fired a warning shot and according to Florida’s shameful law, that’s enough for a minimum 20-year sentence.
Like the judge in the Thompson case, the judge in Alexander’s case had his hands tied and had to give her the mandatory sentence despite the facts of the crime. Greg Newburn of FAMM said that FAMM and other groups will be working next year to try to overturn the 10-20-Life law, but said that the people and organizations that benefit from more and more prisoners with longer and longer sentences will use public fear to keep the law in place.
Alex Friedmann, the associate editor of Prison Legal News, said that politicians who want to look tough on crime and pass laws like the 10-20-Life laws don’t want to deal with the political consequences of higher prison costs and the rise of a prison-industrial complex. He said that greed and the profit-driven industries corrupt and cause conflicts of interest with the stakeholders and players of this burgeoning prison population and the industry that has grown up around it.
Beyond the appalling human toil these strict mandatory sentences bring, they also fuel prison overcrowding, high state budgets for prisons and the push for privatization of prisons under the guise that it will save money. These mandatory sentences will become harder and harder to change as more prisons go private. According to a newly published list of statistics on prisons by ProPublica, the prisoners in private prisons have increased by 37 percent from 2002 to 2009.
As long as the large, private prison companies such as CCA and the Geo Group are allowed to throw their money around in state legislatures in the name of increased profits, these mandatory sentences will be one of the human tragedies that will continue to fuel the drive to privatize prisons and grow the prison-industrial complex.
The Prison News story on Florida’s attempts to pass a large prison privatization law graphically shows how this industry can corrupt the politicians, the state overseers of the prisons and help maintain minimum mandatory sentencing laws that can spread unfair human misery. Exposure and attempts at reform seem to be the only weapons for the prisoner advocates and the activists, who are trying to stem the drive for prison privatization.
To repeat what the ACLU said after their victory against more private prisons in Florida, “The bottom line is that private prisons make money by keeping people in prison when we should be looking for ways to keep them out in the first place.” Minimum mandatory sentencing is a convenient way of keeping prisoners in prison and grows the prisoner population while claiming to fight crime. These laws are a win-win for private prison companies to increase their profits and drive for more privatization of prisons.
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