HEADLINE: ADJUSTING TO END OF PRISON BOOM WACKENHUT CORRECTIONS TURNS TO FEDERAL AND NON-PRISON FACILITIES
BYLINE: Stephen Pounds, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
DATELINE: PALM BEACH GARDENS
Private prison firms operated on a single theme through most of the 1990s: Build them and they'll be filled.
In 1994, 40 states were under court orders to ease prison overcrowding. The year before, 30,000 violent criminals had to be released without spending a day behind bars. States turned to private companies such as Palm Beach Gardens-based Wackenhut Corrections Corp. to solve the crisis. They, in turn, undertook a six-year prison building spree.
But now, as a result of lower crime rates stemming from the economic boom of the 1990s, some states are facing a surplus of prison beds. Wackenhut has had to rejigger its business strategy to cope.
It has turned more to the federal government than to the states for new business and has diversified into managing other types of facilities.
"That's our primary focus domestically, until the state market develops, which we think it will in the next year-and-a-half," said George Zoley, Wackenhut Corrections' chief executive officer.
In the second half of 2000, state prison populations fell by 6,200 inmates - the first drop since 1972 - compared with a rise of 6 percent from 1990 to midyear 2000, a U.S. Department of Justice report showed.
Thirteen states reported a decline in the prison population for 2000, and six others showed an increase of 1 percent or less. Making matters worse for prison companies such as Wackenhut, states such as Florida are reporting a surplus of beds. At the end of 2000, Florida had filled only 81 percent of its prison beds.
Even so, the bed surplus hasn't hurt Wackenhut in Florida, where the state's five privately run prisons - two of which Wackenhut runs - are at 95 percent of capacity or better. Gov. Jeb Bush wants to save money by filling privately managed prisons.
The state "has been specifically pumping inmates into our facilities because of the budget crunch," said Mark Hodges, director of the Florida Correctional Privatization Commission, that state agency that oversees the state's private prisons.