Lawmakers pump up prisons budget by $43 million

BY DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE – While slicing and dicing other areas of the budget, lawmakers plan to boost the state’s spending on prisons by $43 million to address needs such as replacing vehicles and fixing leaky roofs and to wipe out a years-long deficit.

House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement during a special legislative session on much of the Department of Corrections’ $2.3 billion budget, which includes a $43 million increase over the current-year spending. That amount is shy of the $53 million Corrections Secretary Julie Jones sought during the regular session, which ended this spring without lawmakers reaching consensus on a state spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The spending bump comes after the prisons agency has been rocked for the past year by reports of cover-ups of inmate deaths, corruption and retaliation against whistleblowers.

Setting aside $15.8 million to eliminate the agency’s deficit will bring the department into the black for the first time in three years.

Jones called the proposed spending – which includes 163 positions – “generous” and praised the results.

“The Legislature’s currently proposed funding is a fantastic first step that will allow the department to remain fiscally strong and continue to achieve our vision to change lives to ensure a safer Florida,” she said.

The allocations also add $11 million for food services, including $5 million for religious diets. In a long-running legal battle, a federal judge last month ordered the state to provide kosher meals to inmates, rejecting corrections officials’ argument that the religious diet is prohibitively expensive.

The proposed corrections budget includes an additional $16.4 million to cover expenses and contracted services, including toiletries, clothing and utility costs. Jones told senators this spring that her agency has been redirecting salary dollars to pay for such items, as well as maintenance needs like repairing leaky roofs.

House and Senate criminal justice negotiators also agreed to spend $10 million –including $2.7 million to refurbish the Union Correctional Institution infirmary – on capital projects, about $5 million short of what Jones had suggested.

Jones’ predecessor, Mike Crews, left the embattled agency late last year in apparent frustration over being unable to fill staffing gaps and provide salary increases. Crews scrimped by having inmates make their own soap and sew their own bed linens in an effort to bring down costs after lawmakers repeatedly slashed spending on prisons.

The proposed prisons spending plan includes $1.3 million for computer software upgrades. Jones testified earlier this year that more than 9,000 corrections officers do not have access to email. The current plan would ensure that all corrections employees have email accounts.

The proposal also addresses an aging vehicle fleet that has created problems for probation officers and guards transporting inmates from prisons to other locales. Lawmakers have agreed on $750,000 purchase up to 40 new vehicles for probation officers.

Another vehicle-related issue was left unresolved Wednesday, as the two chambers’ budget chiefs – Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and his Senate counterpart, Tom Lee, R-Brandon – took over negotiations. The House wants to spend $1.7 million in recurring money, or funds that would be replenished every year, to replace decrepit prison buses, which have an average of 200,000 miles, according to corrections staff.

Also left up to the budget chairmen is a Senate proposal to spend $500,000 on a contract with an independent agency to conduct a security analysis of the prison system – something the agency is already doing as part of a separate contract currently underway.

The department paid $88,000 to the Association of State Correctional Administrators to conduct an audit that includes a review of prison security operations. The security audit will assess video surveillance, inmate movements, disciplinary and grievance procedures and staff and inmate supervision.The audit will also evaluate the “culture,” staffing levels and use of force at individual prisons as well as system-wide.

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