Private prison companies lost one chance for a big profit last week when one of the largest known privatization campaigns in the country was blocked by a Florida judge for being unconstitutional. But private prison players like The GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, which would have won big from privatization, and the tactics they use to ensure they stay in good graces with lawmakers have remained in the shadows even as the future of the legislation remains in question.
The plan to privatize 29 correctional facilities across 18 counties in South Florida was introduced by state legislators as an amendment to a budget bill, which, according to Thursday’s ruling, didn’t allow for full consideration of the costs of the planned mass privatization. GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America were set to perhaps see a large windfall from the privatization deals, but lobbying records show the companies invested in lawmakers long before any lucrative contracts were proposed.
GEO Group, the second-largest private prison operator in the country, is headquartered in Florida, and is already running the state’s largest private prison, the Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton. When the Corrections Corporation of America builds the largest private immigration center in the country, as it agreed with the town of Southwest Ranches and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to do earlier this year, Florida will become ground zero for private prisons.
The situation in Florida isn’t unique, but advocates say the scale of Florida’s plan is remarkable.
“It’s precedent-setting,” says Ken Kopczynski, executive director of the Private Corrections Working Group, a website that collects news and resources on the growing influence of the private prison industry.
Kopczynski says the proposed budget amendment and the planned ICE-contracted center “is the largest privatization effort in the U.S., if not in the world.”
The private prison industry, like many others service-based private companies, relies on the goodwill of legislators. Campaign finance rules in Florida place a limit on how much companies can give to individual state legislators, so companies often give to a party instead, says Nicole Porter, state advocacy coordinator for the Justice Center.
GEO Group, conceived in 1954, is the biggest donor a significant donor to the Republican Party of Florida, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics. In 2010, GEO Group donated $520,000 $575,500, and through the first two quarters of 2011, it gave $160,000 total, according to the Florida Department of State.
This means that if donations trickle down to an individual candidate, there is little record, said Porter. Gov. Rick Scott and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, the most vocal proponents of the privatization bill, have no record of funding from GEO Group in their campaign disclosure statements from the last three years.
Porter says considering the political donations of GEO Group, the “assumptions around efficiency and cost management” in private prisons “is problematic particularly when you are talking about policies that impact the real lives of people.”
The planned privatization would have impacted one-fifth of Florida’s prison population, and investigations have shown private prisons often cut costs at the expense of prisoner safety.
GEO Group is already under investigation for a pay-for-play scandal involving the Blackwater Correctional Facility. An FBI subpeona calls for, among other things, the travel vouchers of former Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom, according to legal documents obtained by DBA Press. Sansom resigned amid an ethics investigation in Feburary 2010. The allegation is that GEO Group violated excess contribution limits for the facility with $50,000 it gave to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Prominent lawmakers on the national stage, including Sen. Marco Rubio, have also been brought up in connection to the allegations: Sansom was Marco Rubio’s budget chief when he allegedly inserted language creating Blackwater into a Florida budget bill.
Legislation to build the Blackwater prison was successfully pushed through as an amendment to a budget appropriations bill in 2008 rather than as a separate bill that dealt solely with prison privatization.
On the congressional level, six of the top 20 recipients of private prison cash are from Florida, more than any other state. Rubio was the largest recipient of funds from GEO Group and its subsidiaries — he received $27,400 between 2009 and 2010, according to Open Secrets.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Reps. David Rivera, Vern Buchanan, Sandy Adams and Allen West all received between $18,950 and $5,500 dollars from GEO Group or CCA.
CCA, in operation since 1983, “always thinks three to five years ahead,” says Kopczynski, “anticipating they will get a contract,” and their political donations reflect this.
One of Gov. Scott’s top transition budget advisers, Donna Arduin, is a former trustee of a GEO Group real estate company called Correctional Properties Trust.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of two prison unions a union that brought an lawsuit ethics complaint against Scott over the prison privatization measure, argued that the governor’s support for the bill faces a conflict of interest because, as governor, he oversees both the state Department of Corrections and a state investment fund that has stock in private prison companies, according to The News Service of Florida.
Grassroots groups have continued to voice their opposition to pay-for-play private prison contracts and private detention centers in their communities, as The Florida Independent has reported, and they hope shining light on the issue is the first step toward increasing accountability in prison privatization.
“The private prison industry for as long as I have been doing this work has always worked undercover,” says Gail Tyree, a fellow at the Open Society Foundation working to bring together a coalition of organizations to oppose prison privatization.
“They’re always saying you don’t stand a chance, but I believe that you stand a chance to stop the project until the last brick is in the building.”
This report was produced as part of a collaborative investigative effort to expose the influence of corporate money on the political process by members of The Media Consortium, in partnership with the We the People Campaign. To read more stories from this series, visit CampaignCash.org or follow #CampaignCash on Twitter. Sign up for our Campaign Cash email newsletter by clicking here.