When state lawmakers talk about Florida prisons, a trifecta of problems often comes up: staffing levels, health care costs and crumbling facilities.
Heeding Corrections Secretary Mark Inch’s warning that the “status quo is unsustainable,” Gov. Ron DeSantis has called on the Legislature to put more money into the prison system --- primarily to boost pay and retain correctional officers.
But as lawmakers consider the governor’s proposals, Senate President Bill Galvano says he would like to spend more money on aging prison facilities, including addressing a lack of air conditioning.
“It’s not a popular thing, so that’s why it doesn’t often get the attention financially that it should,” Galvano said in an interview last week with The News Service of Florida. “But it’s really about the big picture, and it goes hand in hand with some of the criminal justice reforms that are being discussed.”
In Florida, one of the hottest areas in the nation, 18 of the state’s 50 prisons have air conditioning in housing areas. Others use some form of climate control, including fans or exhaust systems, according to the corrections department.
That concerns Galvano.
“I am not just talking about the prisoners,” he said. “It’s also the people who are working there. They are working 12-hour shifts, and it is in a tough environment.”
The Bradenton Republican did not offer a specific amount that he would like to spend to upgrade facilities, but he questioned whether a $10.5 million recommendation from DeSantis for maintenance and repair projects would be enough to address the long-running infrastructure problems.
“Are we just paying to fix air conditioning in one facility, or (refurbish) an annex? That’s not going to ultimately cut it,” Galvano said. “I’d rather spend more money knowing we have a plan going forward, whether its consolidation of some prison facilities (or something else).”
Galvano said he has a “real interest” in addressing the issue during the 2020 legislative session, which starts Jan. 14. He said he fears that if longstanding prison issues are not addressed, it could ultimately result in a federal takeover of the prison system.
“If we don’t get a hold on it, we could find ourselves in a situation where the feds come in and then we’re just getting bills and paying them, and it could be close to a billion dollars in some estimates,” Galvano said.
In recent months, Inch has issued dire warnings to state lawmakers, saying years of budget cuts have contributed to anemic staffing levels, violence behind bars and inadequate treatment for inmates.
If the status quo continues, it will be like a “plane crashing into the side of the cliff,” he told lawmakers in October.
With the governor’s backing, Inch is asking lawmakers to spend $2.8 billion on the corrections department during the 2020-2021 fiscal year, a $142 million boost from the agency’s current year’s budget.
A significant portion of the extra dollars, Inch said, would go toward retaining staff, which he believes is the biggest problem in the department.
DeSantis’ budget proposal seeks close to $90 million to move one-third of Florida’s corrections officers from 12-hour shifts to 8.5-hour workdays and to give pay increases of $1,500 at two years of service and $2,500 at five years of service.
The state would need to hire roughly 300 new prison guards to make the shift change possible.
Inch acknowledged the proposed change is expected to be a contentious part of union negotiations and that it will need “socialization” among officers. It is not clear which prisons would have the shift change, though Inch said it would happen at maximum- and lower-security prisons.
“We are not going to do it as a softball and go only to our easy locations,” Inch told the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee last week.
However, the program can't launch without approval from the Republican-dominated Legislature. Galvano said the Senate has not committed to the department’s proposed staffing initiatives.
The Senate president last week was also hesitant to endorse any major prison health-care changes.
A new audit estimated the state could save $46 million a year if it moved away from a private contract for prison health-care services. Galvano said it is “not likely” the Senate would approve changes during the upcoming session.
The corrections department has a contract with Centurion, a national health-care provider for correctional facilities. The state and Centurion are in a three-year agreement that runs through 2022 and costs the taxpayers $241 million a year.
The audit, conducted by the consulting firm CGL Companies, recommended the state move health-care services in-house or enter into an agreement with the state university system’s medical schools.
Karl Becker, senior vice president of CGL Companies, said last week that the state’s contract with Centurion offers “stability” to the state at the moment. But in the long haul, he said, the department would benefit by parting from it.
“It would provide some substantial savings for the state overall,” Becker told the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.
In a statement, the Department of Corrections said its health-care contract “is stable.” It did not answer whether it would look at the possibility of ending the private contract. The agency said officials are reviewing the findings of the audit.
Successful class-action lawsuits on behalf of inmates, higher drug costs and an aging prison population are also driving up health-care expenses, Becker said.
DeSantis has pointed to Florida’s plan to start importing drugs from Canada as a potential solution to holding down prescription-drug costs for inmates.
At a news conference Wednesday, DeSantis applauded the Trump administration for moving forward with plans to allow states to import lower-cost drugs from Canada.
The governor said the move could affect a quarter of the correction department’s budget.
“If you get some modest savings out of this (importation plan), for them it could be tens of millions of dollars in savings,” DeSantis said.