Corrections Corp. of America's Secret Tour of Marion County, Florida Jail Should Raise Red Flags

Earlier this month, the Ocala Star-Banner ("Tour points to possibility county will privatize jail to save money," Septe

mber 6) reported on a secret "fact-finding" tour of the Marion County, Florida jail led by County Commissioner Stan McClain.  McClain was joined on the tour by representatives of private prison company Corrections Corporation of America.  The tour was unknown to Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair, the jail's current administrator

Commissioner McClain has argued that cost-cutting should put many options - presumably jail privatization amongst them - on the table. However, the secret nature of the tour should raise many questions for Marion County residents.  For example, why wasn't the Sheriff notified of CCA's tour of the facility?  Wouldn't a tour of the facility give CCA a leg up on possible competitors should the county proceed with a Request for Proposal?  And, what kind of talks have Commissioners already had with CCA that would have preceded the tour?  What are the potential downsides to handing over control of the jail to CCA?    

It shouldn't take Marion Commissioners or residents much searching to discover the potential problems with jail privatization in Florida and across the country.  Grassroots Leadership highlighted many of the failings of Corrections Corporation of America in our CCA Dirty 30 report released in June. 

In fact, Commissioners need look only a few counties over to Hernando County for a case study in the problems with jail privatization. As we detailed in our CCA Dirty 30 report, the Hernando County Jail under CCA's operation became a catalogue of cost-cutting operational failures manifested in a series of escapes, eventually leading the county to take over the facility in 2010. The escapes began shortly after CCA constructed the $8 million jail in 1989, with a state investigator highlighting “a combination of improper cell security checks by staff, defective cell doors and ineffective security grating behind the light fixture.”

Following the escape of four prisoners in January 1990, it transpired that prison staff had not been following the required state protocols of checking prisoners who were known escape risks every fifteen minutes, and had falsified state-mandated logs. Escapes ranged from a prisoner removing a stainless steel plate in a shower stall, one cutting a hole in the ceiling, another walking out through an unlocked door and then climbing out over the roof, to a prisoner replacing his identification bracelet with a low-security one fished out of a trashcan, enabling him to join a work detail outside the jail and then flee.

After the jail went into county hands, Michael Page, who led the Sheriff’s Office in the takeover, pointed to mismanagement and routinely ignored maintenance problems as pivotal reasons for CCA’s failure at the facility. Page interviewed former CCA employees applying for jobs at the new county-run jail, rejecting most either as a result of failed background checks or not meeting standards. “Frankly,” Page said, “I don’t understand why a few of them weren’t in jail.”

What's more, CCA's staffing woes have continued to mount.  Just this week, a federal judge in Idaho found the company in contempt of court for persistently understaffing the company's Idaho Correctional Center.   Given these problems, Marion County Commissioners should take jail privatization off the table.