Less than six months ago it was a frequent label for the state’s financial problems; even seen by some critics as another financial blunder for disgraced former House Speaker Ray Sansom.
Today the recently completed Blackwater River Correctional Institute in East Milton is no longer making newspaper headlines but still sits vacant—slated to open sometime in October as the state’s sixth privately-run prison.
Although the $113 million facility has stirred controversy statewide due to fear of public prison job cuts, locally it is seen as a possible job savior at time in which Northwest Florida is on its financial heels.
Even before its site approval in 2007, most Santa Rosa County officials had jumped on board with the idea despite dark clouds that have surrounded private prisons in recent years.
“Once Santa Rosa County became a potential location, we saw it as an economic development entity that had the potential to create jobs in the area,” says Commissioner Don Salter. “With the way the economy is now, unemployment continuing to rise, it is now a great opportunity to help people find jobs.”
After the multi-national GEO Group, Inc. out of Boca Raton was awarded the contract to build and operate the facility, it wasted no time on breaking ground; reducing its project completion timeline by five months to finish by the end of June.
But construction time has been the least of hurdles for the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC).
The spring legislative session brought a wave of new fears that more than 1,000 state correctional officer jobs would be cut after a proposal was made to close two facilities and bring their prisoners to Blackwater, saving an estimated $20 million. Despite an agreement being made by senate leaders to restore the money, police unions that oppose the facility say it’s still likely to be a heavy financial burden for the state.
Matt Puckett, deputy executive director for the Florida Police Benevolent Association, says that because of the new facility, local law enforcement across the state will no longer have prison work squads due to the $24 million the FDOC spent from its budget on the project.
“A lot of local governments depended on these,” he says. “We’ll take a hit because of (the Blackwater) facility.”
IN THE BEGINNING
TEAM Santa Rosa, the economic development entity for the county, had been in talks with GEO since the Blackwater project’s inception to try and bring it to the area.
A facility that was once thought to be headed to Jackson County, Blackwater found its way to Santa Rosa with support from local officials, including an amendment on the House floor from State Rep. Sansom—who sat on TEAM Santa Rosa’s board at the time.
“From the beginning we’ve been working with GEO on bringing it here,” says Ildi Hosman, spokesperson for TEAM Santa Rosa.
Hosman estimates between 350-400 news jobs will be created in the area from Blackwater and $16.5 million in salaries will be generated in Santa Rosa County alone.
According to Commissioner Salter, many of the Blackwater jobs have already been filled and many employees have been at the facility since the beginning of the year.
“I know many people who have gotten those jobs and are very happy to work for a large corporation,” he says. “And of course there’s always a spin off with support jobs…many other jobs are created through vendors and other small businesses that will now have the opportunity for new customers. For every 10 new jobs, it creates a new one back in the community.”
And there’s no question jobs are hard to come by right now. The current unemployment rate for Santa Rosa County is 9.2 percent and the state sits at more than 11.5 percent.
“If they fulfill the number (GEO) is talking about, anything is a plus in this economy,” says Commissioner Jim Williamson. “I really can’t see this as a negative for Santa Rosa County.”
Commissioner Lane Lynchard agrees.
“(I believe) it has the potential to be an important component of our economy,” he says. “The 400 plus jobs that will result from the new prison will provide stable employment for many in Santa Rosa.
“We have had several major success stories in economic development in the past two years, and this is a prime example,” he adds. “I think the new prison will be one piece of a large puzzle, enabling Santa Rosa to have a diverse base of industries and businesses.”
Just how successful are private prisons at saving taxpayer money?
It really depends on whom you ask—or what report you read.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice released a study that showed a substantial savings for the state of California by using the privately operated Taft Correctional Institute.
“The contract at TCI cost the government $142.1 million, while the estimated cost of government operation cost was between $151.6 and $158.6 million,” the report states. “Thus, the private facility saved between 6 and 10 percent or $9.6 and $16.5 million. During all five years of the analysis, the net cost of contracting was less than the lowest estimate of direct public operation.”
Another report released by Forbes in August showed little to no savings for Arizona’s private facilities and found that “private prisons also lack the incentive to help prepare inmates to return to society, leading to a higher rate of recidivism (inmates returning to prison) and a higher overall cost to the prison system.”
But there is one statistic that cannot be misconstrued—the number of U.S. state prisoners has for the first time in nearly 40 years declined in the past year.
According to the Pew Center on states, in partnership with the Association of state Correctional Administrators, there were 1,404,053 at the start of 2010, roughly 4,700 less than the end of 2008. FDOC estimates that more than 2,200 beds will not be needed next year for our state.
A CLOSER LOOK
The first private prison in the U.S. opened in Tennessee in 1984—at the height of the Reagan-era’s “War on Drugs.” Florida lawmakers approved private facilitation in 1995 despite opposition by many public employee unions. Four contracts were awarded that year.
In August, the GEO Group completed a $730 million merger with Cornell Companies, Inc., another private provider of corrections and inmate care.
It now manages and/or owns 119 correctional, detention and residential treatment facilities with a total design capacity of approximately 81,000 beds and eight non-residential service centers with a total service capacity of approximately 1,400, according to the company’s Website.
But like other private prisons, GEO has run into its share of problems in recent years; more notably riots in one of its Texas prisons and suits from the American Civil Liberties in New Mexico resulting from alleged abuse of inmates.
Puckett says the problem with private prisons is they put profit first before the well being of those being rehabilitated.
“Until just recently they were able to cut corners and put a cap on what they can pay for as far as medical expenses and cherry pick the inmates they can get,” he says.
Another issue that has risen in recent years is the training of private staff, which according to Puckett , is often inadequate.
“There is such a high turnover for a correctional facility because they don’t give the same benefits…people burn out…and they try to get on board with a public staff.”
Salter disagrees and says he doesn’t see a reason to be concerned due to the state’s close supervision and the nearby Santa Rosa County Correctional Institute (SRI).
“Whether it’s private or publicly run, I don’t see a difference.”
Many who live and work near the facility have similar feelings. One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, says what she sees is just like “all of the others.”
“We have numerous (correctional institutes) around here and I’ve never heard of anything going wrong. I don’t see this as anything different.”
WHAT’S OUT THERE NOW
Once you’ve turned down the dusty, unpaved Jeff Ates Road off Highway 90 you’ll find few signs of life before reaching a freshly paved drive that enters the 57-acre state property housing the future correctional institute.
There you’ll find a parking lot filled with cars and a fenced perimeter that in many ways already looks like an operational prison.
When Blackwater opens its cells next month, it is expected to hold a maximum of 2,000 prisoners and primarily house inmates with mental health issues, according to Team Santa Rosa. GEO correctional officers are expected start at a salary of roughly $30,000 compared to state officers who make just over $28,000.
But several questions still remain: How many prisoners will be held? How many staff members will be operating the facility? And how many jobs still remain to be filled?
GEO representatives denied comment to IN, stating “since the facility is still in the process of ramp up activation, we will provide information to the press following the grand opening of the facility which will take place later this year.”
The group also denied a request for a tour due to “staff orientation” currently being held.
Nontheless, IN visited Blackwater on Sept. 10 and was told to contact the warden by phone, who was not available to comment before going to print. The facility also did not permit photography.
LOCAL STATE PRISON NUMBERS (Inmates as of 9/14)
Santa Rosa Correctional Institute (SRI), Milton—1,318
Berry Dale Forestry Camp, Jay—126
Escambia County Correctional Institute (ECI), Century—1,402
Pensacola Work Release, Cantonment—77
Blackwater Forest Correctional Institute, Milton—?
PRIVATELY OPERATED PRISONS
GEO GROUP, INC. manages and/or owns 119 correctional, detention and residential treatment facilities with a total design capacity of approximately 81,000 beds and eight non-residential service centers with a total service capacity of approximately 1,400.
CORRECIONS CORPORATION OF AMERICA (CCA) houses approximately 75,000 offenders and detainees in more than 60 facilities, 44 of which are company-owned, with a total bed capacity of more than 80,000. CCA currently partners with all three federal corrections agencies (The Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement), nearly half of all states and more than a dozen local municipalities.
COMMUNITY EDUCATION CENTERS, INC. (CEC) is the largest provider of offender in-prison treatment services in America. CEC provides in-prison treatment services for over 10,000 offenders each day. Substance abuse therapies, anger management and related mental health treatment, job readiness and vocational development, site-specific release preparation and relapse prevention, life skills training, and diagnostic and risk assessment.