By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
African Americans comprise about half of the more than 100,000 inmates in Florida prisons and jails.
Black males ages 30 to 34 have the highest incarceration rate of any race, age, or gender group in the Sunshine State, which boasts the third-largest prison population in the United States.
The First Amendment Foundation, ACLU of Florida, and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the brief supporting the plaintiffs in Human Rights Defense Center v. Armor Correctional Health Services Inc.
According to a news release, the organizations filed the brief because of their “longstanding interest in preserving an open and transparent government and protecting the public’s right to access public records, including public records held by private companies that provide services to Florida’s incarcerated population.”
The Human Rights Defense Center filed a public records request with Armor Correctional Health Services, which provides medical care in Florida prisons, seeking details of its treatment of incarcerated people.
The release noted that the trial judge dismissed the case because Armor is a private company, and any request for information needed to go through the Florida Department of Corrections.
Human Rights Defense Center is appealing to the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami, arguing that by working in prison on a state contract, Armor must comply with Florida public records laws, the release further stated.
“Any lawyer who represents people in prison can tell you that it’s incredibly difficult to get information on what is going on behind bars,” Kelly Knapp, senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, stated.
“Organizations like ours rely on Florida’s public record laws to make sure that the law is being followed. But with the privatization of so many prison functions, it has become harder than ever to uncover what is happening to people inside. Private companies getting public money should be required to answer to the public.”
The organizations have argued that the steady increase of privatization in administering medical care provided to incarcerated people naturally calls for robust monitoring of prison conditions.
They said over the last several decades, prison costs, including the costs of providing medical care to the prison population, have skyrocketed.
Yet, lawmakers in Florida have given the Department of Corrections broad statutory authority to retain private contractors to provide adequate health care to people in prisons.
“The public must be able to access information about the government in an open and transparent way,” Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement emailed to NNPA Newswire.
“Our democracy depends on the public’s right to know what the government is doing, and access to public information is a constitutional right that must be protected,” Stevenson determined.
Exacerbating the alarm for civil and human rights organizations is the record of malpractice that private prison companies in Florida have.
In 2013, Florida entered into a five-year, $1.2 billion contract with Corizon, a Tennessee company, to provide medical care to thousands of incarcerated people in Florida.
Reportedly, in the five years before Corizon’s partnership, the private company faced over 600 lawsuits stemming from allegations of malpractice.
In December 2012, the Florida Department of Corrections also entered into a $240 million contract with Wexford Health Sources, a Pennsylvania-based company, to provide medical services to incarcerated people in nine institutions throughout South Florida.
Reports indicated that between January 2008 through 2012, Wexford faced over 1,000 claims of malpractice from people in prisons.
The organizations argued in their brief that the sheer number of lawsuits against private contractors providing prison services underscores the need for effective monitoring in prisons.
“Access to records of government contractors is critical as more prison services are privatized. These records are necessary for the public and the press to oversee the conditions of Florida prisons and jails,” Pamela Marsh, President of the First Amendment Foundation, argued.
“Forcing the public to sue a government entity, rather than a contractor acting on behalf of an agency, unnecessarily drags out the enforcement of a public records request and increases the costs of enforcing the constitutional right of public access.”