Florida Lawmakers Okay Privately Run State Prison

Published May 24, 2010

Florida’s newest privately run state prison is scheduled to open later this November after lawmakers agreed to protect government worker’s jobs in the final days of the legislative session.

The $110 million Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton will be managed by GEO Group, a Boca Raton-based company that oversees 60,000 prison beds in 62 facilities in the United States, UK, South Africa, and Australia. Blackwater will house up to 2,224 inmates and employ 450 people.

The Florida legislature authorized the construction of Blackwater in 2007 in response to the state’s growing prison population. GEO won a contract to manage the facility after submitting a bid stating it could house prisoners at a daily cost of $41 per inmate as opposed to the state Department of Corrections’ (DOC) projected cost of $65 per inmate.

No Need for Beds
By the time Blackwater’s construction was completed in 2009, however, Florida’s prison population had stabilized. Blackwater sat empty, as the state no longer needed additional prison beds.

To put Blackwater to use and help close a $3.2 billion state budget deficit, State Sen. J. D. Alexander (R-Lake Wales) attached a prison privatization amendment to the state’s budget in March. It called for two of the state’s existing “inefficient” prisons to be closed and their inmates transferred to Blackwater.

Some estimates showed it would cost the DOC $1 million a year to maintain Blackwater and up to $10 million a year to pay the debt on it.

“We’ve got a brand new, state-of-the-art facility, and if we don’t use it, we’re wasting money,” Alexander said in a committee meeting.

The DOC estimated approximately 1,400 state prison employees would lose their jobs under Alexander’s proposal. The Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the union representing corrections officers, said it opposed any measure that would eliminate members’ jobs.

No Closures, Job Cuts
To reach a budget deal before the end of the legislative session and get some use out of Blackwater, lawmakers decided against closing any prisons. Instead the DOC will close some prison dormitories and transfer those inmates to Blackwater. No state prison jobs will be eliminated.

Blackwater may serve as a stepping stone for further privatization in Florida and other states, said Robert Sanchez, policy director for the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.

“Fortunately, just raising the possibility that certain government functions may be outsourced to private providers can serve as a restraint on the otherwise unfettered demands of public employee unions,” he said.

Nick Baker ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.