Saturday, April 18, 2009

Prison Problems Must Be Addressed Quickly, Report Says

The Associated Press

The agency that oversees Florida's six privately run prisons needs to ensure that problems found during audits — such as broken alarms and unsanitary infirmaries — are quickly fixed, lawmakers were told today as part of a report reviewing the agency.

Audits of private prisons by the Florida Department of Corrections had previously found broken escape sensors and buildings that had not been checked for any attempts by inmates to tunnel out.

Audits also found delays in medical care and problems involving contraband.

"Some of these problems were repeated year after year at the same prisons," said analyst Vic Williams, who summarized the report for lawmakers in testimony before the Senate Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations.

The report was written by the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability and released in December. Lawmakers heard a formal presentation of the details today.

An official with the Department of Management Services, the agency that oversees the private prisons, told lawmakers that his agency has already begun to address some of the issues raised by the report.

"We've already started the process to implement a lot of these recommendations," Department of Management Services' J.D. Solie told the panel.

Solie promised that any future violations found by Department of Corrections audits would be corrected within 45 days.

"This is an eye-opening report," said Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami.

The state has six private prisons housing approximately 8,000 inmates or about 8 percent of the state's inmates. The facilities cost the state about $133 million a year, or some 6 percent of the Department of Corrections' $2.2 billion budget.

The state currently contracts with two private prison companies: Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America and Boca Raton-based GEO Group Inc. The state's 131 other facilities are run by the Florida Department of Corrections.

CCA said in a statement that it has "worked closely" with the state to "ensure contract compliance and will continue to do so." A message left for a spokesman at GEO was not immediately returned.

Among recommendations, the report also said private prisons should be required to track the percentage of inmates who successfully complete substance abuse and education programs.

It also noted that phone calls made from private prisons are more expensive than calls from prisons run by the Department of Corrections. A 15 minute phone call from a private prison costs around $6 while the same call costs 50 cents in a state-run prison, lawmakers were told.

And while families can visit state-run prisons on Saturdays and Sundays, private facilities allow visits either every other weekend or only one of the two weekend days, the report found.

The Department of Management Services said future contracts would require private prisons to measure and report graduation rates from education and treatment programs. Contracts will also require that phone call prices be "more in line" with the cost at state-run prisons, according to a written reply from the agency.

But, the agency wrote it believed the visitation policies at private prisons were appropriate, though it agreed to ask inmates and families about their satisfaction.

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