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PLN managing editor quoted re proposed sale of FL jail to CCA

Ocala Star-Banner, May 27, 2014.


Note: PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann also serves as president of the Private Corrections Institute.


Watchdog group slams CCA, which seeks to buy county jail

Staff writer
Published: Tuesday, May 27, 2014 at 5:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2014 at 5:16 p.m.

A watchdog group is urging the County Commission to not sell the county jail to the nation’s largest operator of private prisons, saying the company’s profit motive will bleed the public purse.

In a letter to the commission on Tuesday, the Tallahassee-based Private Corrections Institute suggests that Marion County taxpayers would lose out if Corrections Corporation of America becomes the county’s landlord at the jail.

The company’s track record in Florida, which indicates that jail costs dropped after sheriff’s offices resumed management of their jails, offers a special warning for Marion officials, wrote Alex Friedmann, president of the group known as PCI, which opposes privatization of the corrections system.

“It is important to understand that private prison companies exist for only one reason: to make money. Whereas public agencies such as the Sheriff’s Office operate correctional facilities for the public good to ensure public safety as a public service, private companies are primarily concerned with generating profit. In fact, they have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to ensure the company is profitable, unlike in the public sector,” Friedmann wrote.

He acknowledged in the letter that he has an “insider’s perspective,” having been imprisoned in a CCA-run facility in the 1990s.

Mother Jones magazine reported in May 2012 that Friedmann spent six years of a 10-year sentence in a CCA prison in Tennessee after being convicted of attempted murder, armed robbery and attempted aggravated robbery.

The company counters that Friedmann glosses over the benefits a deal with Marion County would provide — including much-needed revenue for other purposes.

Locally, that could mean $50 million, the amount CCA has offered for 21 buildings and 36 acres at the jail site.

“It’s unfortunate that activists like Mr. Friedmann — a violent, convicted felon who now makes his career as a paid, professional critic of partnership corrections — continue to advocate against the benefits our company provides without themselves providing any solutions to the serious challenges our corrections systems face,” CCA spokesman Steve Owen said in an email.

“These challenges aren’t solved with politics and posturing. The bottom line is that CCA provides significant taxpayer savings, secure facilities, recidivism-reducing programs for thousands of inmates and important flexibility in contracts with our government partners across the country.”

The County Commission’s staff assistant said no commissioners had yet seen Friedmann’s letter on Tuesday.

Most of Friedmann’s correspondence, which included news articles about CCA, attacks CCA’s operation of county jails in Florida.

CCA has done so in Bay, Citrus and Hernando counties in the past. According to the letter, only Citrus County has stuck with the company.

That, however, is different from what may happen in Marion.

CCA has proposed only buying the jail property. Under the proposal, the company would own the site for 20 years and lease it back to the county. At the end of that time, ownership of the jail would revert to Marion County.

Commission Chairman Carl Zalak has said the county is not talking to CCA about privatizing the jail.

So even if the jail is sold, the Sheriff’s Office would continue staffing and operating the 1,900-bed facility.

County officials are discussing details with CCA, and have set an August deadline for completing a review of the offer.

Despite not actually running Marion County’s jail, CCA, as owner, would be responsible for maintaining the facility, Friedmann argued.

He pointed out that Hernando County officials discovered “significant” problems at the jail after they cuts ties with CCA. That happened in August 2010, ending the county’s 22-year relationship with the company.

Those faults included cracked walls and floors, a leaky roof, rusted doors and “clouded” windows.

Friedmann wrote that Hernando County withheld $1.8 million from CCA to pay for the repairs, which, in turn, invited a lawsuit from CCA.

“(P)lease keep in mind that CCA would not enter into a lease-back arrangement were it not profitable for the company, and such profits would come at the expense of county residents over the long term, as their taxes would fund the lease payments,” Friedmann added.

“Many things can change over a 20-year period, but the county would be locked into its contract with CCA. Notably, if a sale lease-back is such a great deal for taxpayers, why haven’t other counties done so?”

The Tampa Bay Times reported in January 2012 that Hernando officials and CCA settled the lawsuit with the company paying back $100,000 of the disputed amount and keeping the rest.

The paper added that a county-funded engineering report determined that the Hernando jail required almost $15 million in repairs and remodeling, but that CCA was responsible for only about $1 million of that.

As for CCA setting up shop in Marion County: Sheriff Chris Blair has cautioned that selling the jail to CCA, or any other company, could have an adverse effect on the community.

In his recently released five-year strategic plan, Blair noted that if CCA bought the site, the county would have to abide by its “future agreements and demands.”

He suggests that could mean an influx of inmates from elsewhere, since CCA generates significant revenue by housing federal inmates in its facilities.

It is very likely, Blair said in the plan, that upon completing their sentences “these criminals will recommit crimes within Marion County, thereby the increasing the presence of criminal elements, the crime rate, and requiring an increase in the demand for law enforcement services.”