DeSantis cuts money for prison updates, hepatitis C treatment

Two line items in Florida’s $92 billion budget aimed at addressing prison infections — $2 million to create a modernization master plan and $28 million for infectious disease drug treatment — were vetoed this week by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Walkway. Interior photos of Blackwater River Correctional Facility.
Walkway. Interior photos of Blackwater River Correctional Facility. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published July 2, 2020|Updated July 3, 2020

Summer has arrived in Florida’s prisons, marking the hardest part of the year.

Outdated infrastructure like slow-moving fans and lack of air conditioning have inmates fainting in the heat, and outdated plumbing can mean days without a shower. Dry wash cloths get soaked from humidity in the dorms and in some places, 70 men share a water fountain, according to anecdotes from inmates’ family members shared with the Miami Herald.

Meanwhile, coronavirus continues to infect inmates across the state system, where at least 24 inmates have died and 2,073 have tested positive for COVID-19.

Two line items in Florida’s $92 billion budget aimed at addressing such problems — $2 million to create a modernization master plan and $28 million for infectious disease drug treatment — got the ax this week when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $1 billion from the state budget he signed into law.

The modernization project to bring the state’s correctional facilities up to date was a priority for Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who says the crumbling correctional facilities across Florida are “failing” the state’s nearly 95,000 inmates and correctional officers.

Lawmakers sought to upgrade the state’s aging facilities with improvements like air conditioning and even relocating prisons to more populated areas to help recruit talent to apply for jobs. A private contractor was to use the funds in order to create a multi-year master plan, to be submitted to the Department of Corrections by June 2021. The plan would have included a list of both physical and staffing needs.

Brandes compared long-deferred maintenance issues to a “tidal wave” that is “dammed up by stuff that ultimately leaks through.” The oldest of the state’s prisons is more than 100 years old.

“It’s really crisis to crisis,” he said.

Brandes, who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee on criminal justice issues, said he’s researched prisons in Alabama, which have modernized facilities in a similar way to what lawmakers proposed.

“Most people would change jobs if their job didn’t include air conditioning every day,” he said. “Environmental issues play a major role on the psychological impact of corrections officers and those incarcerated.”

Hepatitis C care

Lawmakers earmarked the $28 million in nonrecurring funding for hepatitis C treatment, according to appropriations documents, but also authorized the Department of Corrections to spend the $28 million of the allocation on COVID-19 treatment as well.

Brandes said that the $28 million in funding is on hold as the state attempts to challenge a part of a court ruling that required the state to provide treatment for inmates with less serious symptoms of the illness. The fewer inmates treated, he said, the more it is transmitted and the more it will cost the state in the long run.

“If [DeSantis] loses that lawsuit, he’ll have to go in and find the money or the department will have to cut,‘' he said.

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Brandes said while all legislators are disappointed when it comes to vetoes on their projects, it just means they must come back to Tallahassee and make a case for them again. As for coronavirus response dollars, federal CARES Act money will likely be allocated to treating inmates.

“The governor has tough choices to make,” he said.

Pay hikes for correctional officers

While the Department of Corrections lost on the two aforementioned items, it did secure correctional officer pay raises as well as a $17.3 million pilot program to transition some officers from 12-hour shifts to 8.5-hour shifts.

Prison reformers said the cuts were marginal compared to what could have been.

“I look at things that could have been cut but weren’t,” said Greg Newburn, Florida director of FAMM. “The rest is belt tightening. Everyone’s gotta do it.”

Meanwhile, loved ones of inmates say they worry about putting off infrastructure planning for another year.

Andrea Davis, who has friends and family incarcerated at South Bay Correctional Facility, a privately run prison in in Palm Beach County, said she feels like the prisons’ infrastructure hasn’t changed much since the Department of Corrections was created in the 19th century.

“It’s disgusting,” she said, recalling showers that hadn’t been cleaned in weeks.

At Lake Correctional Institution near Orlando, the wife of one inmate, said her husband tells her stories about how mold is painted over, the showers leak through the ceilings and 70 people share one water fountain.

“People pass out because of the heat,” she said. “Animals get air conditioning in a shelter, but people can’t?”

Cynthia Cooper, whose husband is also incarcerated at Lake, said the ceilings leak, black mold is rampant and the air flow in the dorms is “little to none.”

“Inmates suffer extreme heat all summer long,” she said. “I would challenge any state lawmaker to spend one 24-hour period in a dorm during the month of July.”

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