Public, Private Prisons to Go 'Head to Head' in Florida

Are private prisons more efficient and better at reducing crime than their public counterparts? The new secretary of the nation's third-largest correctional system believes that a major prison outsourcing in his state could help answer that long-debated question.

Ed Buss, who took over Florida's corrections department this year, is overseeing one of the biggest — and fastest — prison privatization efforts in history. By the end of this year, 30 state prisons, road camps and work release centers in an 18-county region of south Florida will be turned over to a single private operator.

According to The Miami Herald , the initiative has set up a "high-stakes competitive battle" between the nation's two largest private prison operators, Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, both of which are already active in Florida and are now competing to win the huge new contract.

In the meantime, Buss, a well-known corrections administrator who previously was in charge of Indiana's prison system, tells the News Service of Florida that the privatization of so many facilities will help provide crucial information in the back-and-forth over whether private prisons are more cost-effective — and result in better outcomes for inmates — than their public counterparts. "This will provide some competition so that the public and private sector can go head-to-head," Buss says.

Under the legislation calling for Florida's prison privatization, the winning contractor must ensure savings of at least 7 percent beyond what the state currently pays to run its facilities. But the legislation also calls on the contractor to keep recidivism down by relying on research-guided practices to keep inmates from returning to prison. Buss says he will be watching the private facilities closely to see whether they are effective for inmates as well as for taxpayers.

"It takes three to five years to get any meaningful data on recidivism," Buss says. "I wouldn't recommend any future private prisons until we get the data and we see if it does actually work."

Unionized prison guards are still hoping to upend Florida's privatization efforts. They have filed a lawsuit contending that the privatization language was improperly included in the state budget, and therefore should be voided