Editorial: New prisons chief makes progress

Published February 27 2015

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones is right to rebid nearly $1.4 billion in contracts for health care providers in Florida's prisons. Her decision comes at a time when suspicious inmate deaths are inexplicably high and medical teams appear to be short-staffed in many prisons. It makes good business sense for the department to review the state's medical contracts to ensure that inmates are getting adequate care and taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.

Jones announced last week that she would call for bid proposals for medical services providers before the start of 2016. In its invitation to negotiate, the department will look for companies that can provide medical care and enhanced services such as delivering specialized care to inmates with mental health issues, improving the coordination of medical and mental health re-entry planning and implementing electronic health records.

The state privatized medical care in prisons at the behest of the Florida Legislature in 2011. Now the state pays Wexford Health Sources $48 million a year to service 15,000 inmates at nine South Florida prisons. Another contractor, Corizon Health, receives $229 million a year to provide care to 74,000 inmates in North, Central and parts of South Florida. Corizon's contract expires in 2018. Wexford's expires in 2017.

Jones' announcement comes at a dark time for Florida's Corrections Department. The Miami Herald has detailed multiple instances of inmate abuse and death at the hands of prison guards and repeated instances of misconduct among prison staff. The Legislature is considering a bill that would set up an independent oversight commission to increase accountability in prisons, and some legislators have been making surprise visits to inspect prisons. Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, called on Jones to rebid medical contracts after he visited several prisons where inmates were being underserved.

Jones' aggressive approach to reshaping Florida's prison system is exactly what is needed to turn around an agency rife with problems and accustomed to operating with little accountability. In renegotiating the agency's deals with medical providers, Jones expects to spend more money to pay for expanded services. This will be money well spent, particularly because new contracts should clearly define expectations of contractors and set penalties for failing to meet them.

Jones has occasionally veered off course. Earlier this month, she implemented an order forbidding investigators in the Office of the Inspector General from talking about cases, open or closed, or releasing agency records. Jones said that the move protects the integrity of casework. But it fosters the same type of cloistered environment that has provided cover for the department's wrongdoings. As she continues her good work, Jones should always lean toward transparency. Rebidding the department's medical contracts — and keeping the public updated throughout the process — is a good place to start.