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Is a private jail Brevard's answer?

By Scott Blake
Florida Today
June 12 2004

Reality may not live up to cost-saving promises of corporate America

BROOKSVILLE -- On the inside, privately run institutions like the Hernando County Jail often look no different than their government-run counterparts:

Inmates mull around the crowded cellblocks as a corrections officer watches them from a control room upstairs. One or two officers also roam the floor below with direct access to the cellblocks.
But there is a difference, and the inmates know it.

"We're an asset to them," inmate Phillip Waun said. "They make money off of us."

The jail, run by Corrections Corporation of America, is one of dozens of corporate-operated jails and prisons around the nation. CCA runs six in Florida alone, three prisons and three county jails. And now, as Brevard officials search for solutions for the problems plaguing the county detention center at Sharpes, handing it over to a private company to run is one option under consideration.

The private prison industry's sales pitch sounds good: It saves tax dollars and shields government from lawsuits.

But the promises may be better than the reality. There's evidence the savings are less than expected. And critics say there's no guarantee that government is protected from lawsuits simply by hiring contractors to operate its jails and prisons.

A representative for CCA, the nation's largest private prison company, has met with Brevard County officials about taking over the local jail. No decision has been made, but officials have included the proposal in a jail improvement study due to be completed by late summer.

To see what Brevard's future might hold, FLORIDA TODAY visited two of CCA's jails in rural Citrus and Hernando counties north of Tampa. The tours revealed the jails provide levels of staffing and services similar to Brevard, although the CCA jails were less crowded and seemed cleaner, with less visible litter and debris.

Fights and bites

Citrus County Jail Warden Carlos Melendez said there hasn't been a suicide at the jail since he arrived in 1999. Sgt. Robert O'Rourke, the jail's senior officer, said "real fights" between inmates happen once about every 10 to 14 days.

Jail officials in Hernando County said they've had two suicides in the past six years. During the jail's last fiscal year, there were 29 fights between inmates and two fights between inmates and officers.

By comparison, in Brevard, there were 213 fights between inmates and 77 fights between inmates and staff in 2002 -- the last year for which statistics were available. There have been five apparent suicides at the facility since December.

At the Citrus County facility, one inmate with sores on his body said he was bitten by brown recluse spiders. Another claimed he was assaulted by a corrections officer. Others complained about rat feces in the cellblocks and bat feces in the recreation area. Mold, staph infections, bad food, cold air, problems with the telephone system and difficulties getting medicine also were on their list of complaints.

There also are questions about whether the industry saves as many tax dollars as it claims.

State law requires that private prisons yield a 7 percent savings over what it would cost the government to run them. But a review by the Florida Legislature's Office of Program Analysis and Government Accountability found that only one of five state prisons run by CCA and another prison company, the GEO Group, met the requirement.

In its pitch to Brevard officials, CCA said it "typically" could save governments as much as 20 percent. But CCA spokesman Steve Owen in Nashville now says it's not clear the company could run the jail for less than what the county spends.

"Quite frankly," Owen said, "we aren't in a position to do that yet. We haven't been asked to come in and do any sort of financial assessment and comparison."

Higher rates

While the figures vary from institution to institution, CCA's annual financial report shows the company charges an average of $50.94 a day for each inmate at its 65 facilities nationwide.

Meanwhile, the company spends an average of $37.85 per inmate. CCA is able to keep costs down through "efficient" staffing at its facilities and, because of the company's large size, can "command" lower prices with vendors for supplies and services, Owen said.

Nonetheless, what the company charges is well above the $39.61 a day Brevard spends to house each inmate. Brevard's figure, however, is expected to increase from added personnel costs if the Brevard Sheriff's Office hires 60 more corrections officers during the next year as proposed.

The other advantage CCA claims to offer -- that it shields local governments from lawsuits -- is disputed by Florida's Police Benevolent Association.

"The county is ultimately responsible for the care of its inmates," Central Florida PBA President Vincent Champion wrote in a recent letter to Brevard County commissioners.

Authorities in Bay County in the Panhandle -- home to CCA's third and largest county jail in Florida -- said the local government has faced less litigation from problems at the jail since the company took over.

"Our lawsuits have been reduced about 75 percent," Bay County Sheriff's Maj. J.B. Holloway said. "The number of lawsuits is not less, but we just don't have as many in our hair."

Inmate lawsuits

In 2002, six Bay County inmates were charged with the beating death of fellow inmate Chad Littles. His mother sued CCA, claiming the company did not protect her son.

Last year, the state police association filed an ethics complaint against former Bay County officials, claiming they accepted a free trip from CCA at a time when they were negotiating the renewal of the company's contract. The complaint is pending before the state ethics commission, said police association spokesman Ken Kopczynski in Tallahassee.

Also last year, an Ocala hospital sued Citrus County, claiming the jail deliberately released an inmate to avoid paying for medical services he would receive at the hospital.

In Hernando County, a former inmate sued CCA in 2002, claiming a company corrections officer raped her in an elevator.

Kopczynski said information about the outcome of such cases is hard to get because the company often settles the suits with non-disclosure agreements with plaintiffs. He said government agencies that contract with CCA and other prison companies sometimes are dragged into the litigation.

CCA officials wouldn't discuss the matter.

"It's not the company's practice to answer questions about active litigation matters," said Louise Chickering, CCA's vice president of marketing and communications in Nashville.

Also, despite the industry claims of cost savings, Hernando County's jail budget is going up significantly this year. The county spends $5.3 million a year on its CCA-managed jail in Brooksville. That's projected to jump to $7.6 million next year, mainly because inmate population is growing, even though the local crime rate is down, according to Jim Gantt, Hernando County's purchasing and contract director.

Hernando County has about 420 inmates, about 80 above the jail's rated capacity.

"We keep going up like everybody else," Gantt said.

To accommodate the growth, Hernando County broke ground in July for construction of a 240-bed jail expansion. The project will cost $11 million to $12 million. CCA is contributing $285,000 to the project. The county is paying for the rest.

For CCA, more inmates mean more money.

"God bless the sheriff. God bless the judges," Cathie Sullivan, CCA's spokeswoman at the Hernando County facility, recently told the St. Petersburg Times. "They keep bringing them in."

Contact Blake at 242-3644 or

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