Blaming the Legislature for not fully funding the state prison system, Florida corrections officials are slashing substance-abuse services, transitional housing and re-entry programs — services and programs launched to keep inmates from returning to life behind bars — in an attempt to fill a $28 million budget hole.
The Department of Corrections announced the cost-cutting measures late Tuesday. The cuts are focused largely on doing away with or dramatically reducing substance-abuse, mental-health and re-entry programs to plug a $28 million health-care services deficit.
With an annual budget in excess of $2.4 billion and about 100,000 inmates, the corrections agency makes up one of the state’s largest spending areas. But the agency is running an overall deficit of about $79 million, after budget reductions imposed by lawmakers over the past two years and escalating health care and pharmaceutical costs.
The corrections agency has been struggling to keep up with the cost of health care for the majority of the state’s inmates, after one private vendor quit years before its contract was up and the state fired another.
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, in a statement announcing the cuts, said she hoped the reductions are temporary.
“In order to secure a health services contractor, fund the increased pharmaceutical budget, and adjust for reductions, we’ve unfortunately had to make some very difficult decisions. At the start of the next fiscal year, we will be reducing some of our current contracts with community providers. Additionally, we are reducing operating costs to include maintenance, repair, utilities, and working to find every possible internal solution to reduce costs in order to maximize services for inmates and offenders,” Jones said in the statement issued Tuesday.
The budget cuts came a month after corrections officials asked vendors for a “voluntary rate reduction and/or cost-saving measure” in their current contracts.
Lawmakers this spring included money in the state budget to address a number of legal challenges centered on health care in the prison system, including the treatment of inmates with hepatitis and inmates with disabilities and mental-health issues.
But according to documents distributed by the department Tuesday evening, the $437 million earmarked for inmate health care — which includes pharmaceuticals — still came up about $55 million short.
Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday evening that he has repeatedly warned his colleagues they were shortchanging the prison system.
Brandes said the funding crisis has “been festering for years” and called the cuts announced Tuesday unacceptable.
“In the short term, we’re going to have to fund the shortfalls in unconventional ways. But they must be funded. Period. These are not options. You must fund them,” he said.
Especially disturbing are the cuts to substance-abuse treatment, which are coming at the peak of the state’s opioid epidemic, and re-entry programs. Both have been shown to reduce recidivism and to aid prisoners as they transition to the community, said Brandes, who has been at the forefront of a criminal-justice reform movement in Florida.
“These are the very programs that have been proven to work. You can’t have an opioid crisis and cut opioid funding. You can’t just let people out of prison without some type of transition back into society. These are the types of programs that the research shows provide the best outcomes,” he said.
Jones announced the cuts as she prepares to sign a new contract with a private vendor to provide health services to about 87,000 inmates in state-run prisons.
The privatization of prison health care has been plagued with problems for the past several years.
Jones severed ties with Pittsburgh-based Wexford Health Sources a year ago, after Corizon Health in late 2015 notified the state that it was walking away from a five-year, $1.2 billion deal three years early. The Tennessee-based company said it was losing money on its contract with the state.
Jones came under fire for signing a no-bid, $268 million contract with Centurion of Florida LLC in January 2016 to take over for Corizon. Wexford’s contract with the state was unaffected by the deal with Centurion, which eventually took over health care for the entire state-run prison system.
Jones decided to redo the health care services contracts in 2015 and issued an invitation to negotiate for select companies to submit proposals.
But, after re-issuing the invitation to negotiate, Centurion — whose contract expires in June — was the only respondent for what is expected to be a $2 billion, five-year contract with the state. According to corrections officials, the agency is finalizing negotiations with Centurion.
“First and foremost, it’s our responsibility to ensure the security of individuals in our custody and to make certain their human and constitutional rights are upheld while incarcerated. Health care is one of these constitutional responsibilities, and in my tenure, I’ve held vendors accountable for ensuring these services are provided at an adequate and appropriate level, that is in line with required standards. Like every state agency, we must make fiscally sound decisions to operate within our legislatively appropriated budget,” Jones said in the statement.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida