Senators analyze Florida prison system's persistent red ink
Senators spent nearly two hours Wednesday grappling with the inner workings of Florida's prison system, including a persistent budget deficit that's currently hovering around $50 million.
Corrections Secretary Mike Crews was well-received by the Senate Criminal & Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, a seasoned panel headed by first-term Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. The agency's budget is nearly a half billion dollars less than it was in 2007, and yet it has about 20,000 more inmates now than it did then. Bradley and Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, wondered aloud about the wisdom of Florida locking up so many non-violent first-time drug offenders.
"They're not getting treatment. They're being housed. I don't know how smart that is," Bradley said.
Crews is highly supportive of the 20,000 men and women in the agency. Yet the Department of Corrections is being sued by the Teamsters Union over a use-it-or-lose-it policy that prevents employees from using special compensatory time, usually for working holidays, unless they use it within six months. Crews said 449 employees have lost a total of 6,000 hours of comp time because they were needed to staff prisons.
"I couldn't let them off. Someone's got to watch the shop," Crews testified. "So they can't even use the leave that they're earning."
Crews also ticked off a long list of problems in the nation's third-largest prison system. He said it can't keep employees because of the low pay for correctional officers of $32,000 a year, and that the savings expected from privatizing prison medical care haven't happened because of legal fights that delayed the outsourcing for nine months. He said a six-month delay in closing Glades Correctional (before he took over) created a budget hole that's still not plugged.
To save money, Crews said, some prisons make their own bedclothes and inmate uniforms, and laundry is hung on clotheslines. Crews said he re-bid the contracts for paper towels and toilet paper and saved nearly $1 million, but the costs of bid protests, including one for spoons and forks, have hobbled the agency. He was reminded again that the Legislature has waited for at least three years for the agency to switch from paper time cards to electronic timekeeping for employees, and promised it would be in his next budget.
"If I don't, hold me accountable," Crews told senators.