Another part of the series looked into the political connections of the companies, including their lobbying efforts, campaign contributions, and other ways they might have influenced the legislative process. Beall found plenty of revolving-door politics and even a federal investigation into one $110 million contract quietly slipped into legislation in 2008.
At first, she planned to start the series with the stories on violence inside prisons, Beall told me. But instead the series began with what is probably the strongest and most original installment in the investigation, on costs.
Beall found taxpayers are not saving much if any money, while the private companies are raking in profits. That’s because the formula used by the state of Florida is skewed in ways that make it look like the private prisons are saving more money than they are—and make sure the private companies get paid a lot.
“Cost was one of the things I thought was going to be fairly simple, but the state had this byzantine formula,” Beall said. “We thought this was set in stone, that the private companies had to deliver seven percent savings.”
The series finishes up Sunday with a story on alternative approaches and sentencing reform. So far, though the Post’s reporting has generated a little bit of social media buzz, the coverage doesn’t seem to have generated much of an outcry in Florida.
“We put all of the series behind a paywall, so I wasn’t sure what sort of response it was going to get,” Beall said. “When things are free, they go viral much more quickly. I wonder if it’s going to be a more slow-motion process.”
She knows people at the state Department of Corrections want to read it; they called her and said they didn’t have any money in their budget for a Palm Beach Post subscription. She’s putting the entire thing on a CD for them. She’s also made paper copies for many of her sources.
Some readers simply won’t be interested, an obstacle Beall knew she’d have from the outset.
“There are a lot of people who just don’t care if conditions are terrible in prisons,” she acknowledged. “You have to understand that some of your readers are not going to have any connection to prisoners.”
Given the series’ scale, even some readers who have a subscription and care about the issue may find the sheer volume of information daunting. But as someone who’s encouraged journalists to dig more deeply into prison privatization efforts, I applaud Beall’s work. It deserves attention.
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