A costly symbol of Florida’s budget crisis stands on a dusty country road: a nearly completed private prison that cost the state $113 million and still sits idle two years later, reports the Miami Herald. The fate of the empty complex is now the subject of an intense political fight. The lawmaker who writes the Senate budget says opening Blackwater River Correctional Institution in Milton will save the state millions of dollars. Opening privately-run Blackwater could force the closing of two state prisons. The influential labor union for correctional officers says 639 guards would lose jobs during a time of record unemployment.
Gov. Charlie Crist said he doesn’t oppose private prisons, but he doesn’t want to lay off state workers. “I want to do everything to protect jobs, jobs jobs,” he said yesterday. Crist, a U.S. Senate candidate, said he’s concerned about the total Senate budget plan, which would cut $100 million total in salaries from the corrections department. Crist and Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil say it could eliminate 2,500 positions and put the system over capacity, triggering the early release of inmates. “First and foremost, I want to make sure no prisoners are released,” Crist said. In 2007, with the inmate population growing, the legislature authorized Blackwater. The GEO Group, a private prison operator in Boca Raton, won a competitively bid contract to run the facility, designated for inmates with mental health problems. Three years later, the prison is nearly finished and the private company wants inmates, but the population has stabilized and is expected to increase slowly next year. Blackwater is beginning to look like a very expensive white elephant.