Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida reports: A Leon County circuit judge has ordered the state to “cease and desist” from taking further steps toward accepting bids for a prison-privatization plan that she found unconstitutional.
In an order dated Friday and made public Saturday, Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford sided with the Florida Police Benevolent Association in halting the procurement process during the state’s appeal of her earlier ruling.
The Department of Corrections had argued that filing the appeal led to an automatic stay of Fulford’s Sept. 30 ruling — effectively allowing the bidding process to go forward. Fulford’s latest order vacated, or rejected, that stay.
“This court finds that the evidence in the record establishes the likelihood of irreparable injury to the plaintiffs (the PBA and members) if the stay is not vacated and further that the defendants are not likely to succeed on the merits on appeal,” Fulford wrote.
The privatization plan calls for the state to contract out the operation of 29 prison facilities across the southern part of the state. Jim Baiardi, the president of PBA’s chapter for correctional officers, issued a statement Saturday praising Fulford’s latest ruling.
“The PBA is pleased that Judge Fulford has stopped this action,” said Baiardi, who testified during a hearing Friday about “panic” among officers. “State correctional officers can breathe a sigh of relief today.”
The dispute stemmed from a Thursday announcement that the Department of Corrections was reopening the bidding process for the privatization plan. PBA attorneys argued during the hearing Friday there was no reason to move forward with bidding, unless the department was trying to gain some type of advantage in the legal challenge or in the legislative session that starts in January.
But the Department of Corrections said Thursday it would not sign a privatization contract while the legal challenge is pending — a point reiterated during Friday’s hearing by Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Glogau.
In her ruling on the stay, however, Fulford noted the testimony of Baiardi, who also is a captain at the South Florida Reception Center.
“Specifically, Captain Baiardi identified such factors as the disruption of families, the threatened separation of families, loss of jobs, change of schools, lack of sleep, loss of homes and displacement of experienced officers to institutions away from their families as concerns which are overwhelming the correctional officers of the affected facilities,” she wrote.
Attorney General Pam Bondi announced Monday that she would appeal Fulford’s Sept. 30 ruling on the constitutionality of the privatization plan. Bondi made the decision at the request of the Legislature, after Gov. Rick Scott declined to file the appeal.
The PBA challenged the way lawmakers approved the privatization plan, which was included in budget fine print — known as proviso language — instead of in a typical bill.
Fulford found that the constitution required lawmakers to change state law or use an already-existing department review process before privatizing the prisons. She did not say privatization is unconstitutional, just that the way lawmakers approved the plan was unconstitutional.
The proviso language offered a roadmap to privatize prisons, work camps and other types of correctional facilities in 18 counties.
It called for the Department of Corrections to solicit proposals from private companies and then submit a plan to the Legislative Budget Commission by Dec. 1.
After Bondi announced she would appeal Fulford’s earlier ruling, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, issued a statement expressing confidence that the state will win and that privatization will help save tax dollars.
“Not only is the privatization of our state’s prisons good policy, but it ensures that our state can dedicate more money to education, health care or economic development programs that would otherwise be spent on prisons,” Haridopolos said.
The 1st District Court of Appeal has not scheduled a hearing in the case, according to an online docket.