Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Rick Scott's plan to slash prison spending called a 'hoax,' 'shell game'

TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott's plan to curtail state spending and create 700,000 new jobs includes slashing $1 billion from the prison budget by cutting salaries, reducing health care costs and expanding inmate-run vegetable farms.

But people who know how the corrections system works call the Republican candidate for governor's plan a "hoax" and a "shell game." The Florida Department of Corrections is the nation's third-largest prison system with more than 100,000 inmates in 139 facilities. Scott's proposed cut represents more than a third of the agency's $2.4 billion budget.

Experts who dissected Scott's plan for the Times/Herald include James McDonough, a former corrections secretary under a Republican governor; state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who for years helped craft prison budgets; and David Murrell, leader of the statewide prison guards union. The union supports Scott's Democratic opponent, Alex Sink.

"We're going to benchmark what other states are doing," Scott said Wednesday in Tampa. "There's things such as what Texas does. They have the prisoners grow their own food. You just look at the layers of management and things like that. … We shouldn't be more extensive than other states."

The Republican candidate's cost-cutting ideas have sent shock waves through the prison work force at a time of near-record unemployment in Florida, especially for lower-income families who represent the vast majority of prison employees.

"It would be devastating," said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the prison system. "You would have to close prisons."

Scott's plan has angered the politically influential union that represents correctional officers. The Police Benevolent Association months ago backed Sink and now has another motive to ensure Scott doesn't win.

"It's a total hoax," PBA executive director Murrell said of Scott's plan. "There's no way he can do that, unless he lets a whole bunch of prisoners out of prisons."

In his campaign literature, Scott proposes to model Florida after Texas by "reducing per-prisoner costs to Texas' level."

That worries the PBA, because Texas pays a first-year prison guard about $3,000 a year less than Florida's starting salary of $31,000.

In its zeal to bash Scott, the PBA issued misleading information about the candidate. In a lengthy e-mail to members, a union leader said Scott wants to cut pension benefits and stop tying raises to inflation. It's not true, and even Murrell acknowledged that some of the e-mail's language was unsubstantiated or poorly worded.

Still, the union said Scott has emphasized cutting state jobs so much that its fears are well-grounded.

Scott promises voters he will cut the state work force by 5 percent, and one of every four state employees works in corrections. Even the suggestion of closing a prison sets off economic fears, because many prisons are in small towns where they are a major employer.

Scott's plan also would require prisons to grow more of their own food for inmates to eat, but prison officials say that would provide minor cost savings.

The agency fired two private food service vendors two years ago and now cooks all prison meals in house to save money.

"I think he's off base," said former Corrections Secretary McDonough, who served for two years under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

Calling Scott's set of numbers "a shell game," McDonough said the daily meal cost per inmate is now $2.27 and he can't see it getting much lower.

Scott's top economic adviser, who helped write the prison plan, noted that Scott does not have the resources to assemble a comprehensive budget plan.

"These are ways of highlighting the beginning of an accountability budget review," said adviser Donna Arduin, who served as Jeb Bush's budget director. "This is the beginning of a process, not the end."

Florida officials say the agency's per diem cost has risen 5.7 percent over the past decade, a period in which the total inmate population rose 46 percent.

Corrections officials point out that they have had to withstand several rounds of cuts in recent years due to revenue shortfalls, including a $68 million cut this year from 2009. But the inmate population continues to grow.

State Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who for years has been in charge of crafting the prison budget, says further cuts in prison spending could pose safety hazards.

"It's a very lofty plan. I would like to see how it would work," Crist said. "I would be concerned about public risks. At this point, we have made the cuts that are possible without putting the public at risk."

Union head Murrell said Scott is playing fast and loose with numbers, and people's lives.

"The way he uses figures is like what George Bush Sr. used to call voodoo economics," Murrell said. "He thinks if he runs enough ads he can convince people that's the truth."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith, Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

Department of Corrections

Budget: $2.4 billion

Employees: 28,000

Inmates: 102,000

Longest inmate on death row: Gary Alvord (36 years)


Rick Scott's plan to slash prison spending called a 'hoax,' 'shell game' 09/22/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 23, 2010 9:52am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. FHP seeks semitrailer truck driver that left fiery wreck on I-75


    TAMPA — The Florida Highway Patrol is looking for the driver of a semitrailer truck that sped off from an Interstate 75 crash that left another car burning on Tuesday afternoon.

    Troopers were looking for the driver of a semitrailer truck that sped off from an accident scene on Interstate 75 in Tampa on Tuesday afternoon that caused a car to catch fire. [Courtesy of Florida Highway Patrol]
  2. Joe Maddon gets warm reception in return to the Trop

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The night was arranged to honor former Rays manager Joe Maddon in his first visit back to the Trop, and the standing ovation from the bipartisan crowd and scoreboard video tribute seemed proper acknowledgments of his hefty role in the Rays' success during his nine-year stint.

    Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (70) talks with reporters during a press conference before the start of the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.
  3. Three-hour police standoff ends, thanks to a cigarette


    TAMPA — A man threatening to harm himself was arrested by Tampa police on Tuesday after a three-hour standoff.

  4. Jones: Rays' Kevin Cash doesn't mind following in Joe Maddon's steps

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — On this particular night, he's the other guy. He's like a talk-show guest scooted to the end of the couch. He is Kevin Cash. And the Rays manager is standing in the home dugout at Tropicana Field.

    ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 17: Manager Kevin Cash (L) of the Tampa Bay Rays reacts to action during the game against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field on September 17, 2017 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty Images) 700012494
  5. 7.1 magnitude quake kills at least 139, collapses buildings in Mexico


    MEXICO CITY — A magnitude 7.1 earthquake stunned central Mexico on Tuesday, killing at least 139 people as buildings collapsed in plumes of dust. Thousands fled into the streets in panic, and many stayed to help rescue those trapped.

    A woman is lifted on a stretcher from of a building that collapsed during an earthquake in Mexico City, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. [Rebecca Blackwell | Associated Press]