TALLAHASSEE -- A Florida lawmaker says prison employees in his district told him the Department of Corrections last year had moved sicker, more-expensive inmates out of facilities the state was trying to privatize.
Rep. Paige Kreegel’s comment came recently at a House appropriations committee workshop on prison privatization. He was responding to a presentation by Corrections deputy secretary Mike Crews.
Private prisons in other states have negotiated deals that limit which kind of inmates they will take.
Those who are older or have AIDS, diabetes or other illnesses usually cost more to care for than younger and healthier inmates.
The state is trying to privatize about 30 state prisons in South Florida.
The Senate budget committee Wednesday approved a version of the South Florida prison privatization plan,voting 14-4 for the bill (CS/SB 2038).
Two Democrats -- Gary Siplin of Orlando and Gwen Margolis of Miami -- joined the Republican majority.
A House panel cleared a similar bill earlier last week.
The bill now heads to the full Senate for debate.
Kreegel said some of the corrections officers at Charlotte Correctional Institution are his patients; the Punta Gorda Republican is a physician.
“What they tell me is that shortly after the budget was passed last year, there began a concerted effort of transferring (to north Florida) inmates who were ... expensive health-wise, HIV positive, et cetera,” he said.
“They were getting as replacements people who were younger and healthier, without the costly medical illnesses.”
Kreegel said the officers jokingly referred to these new transfers as “jaywalkers.”
“I guess the insinuation here is that they were fill- ing up the prisons to be privatized with people who are relatively inexpen- sive to take care of, and leaving the more expensive prisoners to the state,” he added.
If so, any savings to the state from privatizing prisons could be just “bureaucratic sleight of hand,” Kreegel said.
Crews, who’s been with the department about two months, said he couldn’t confirm the story.
He did say that any facility’s inmate population would be determined by the contract the state signs with a private company.
Ultimately, however, the department “decides which inmates go to a private facility,” Crews said later.
But he admitted that certain inmates cost less to imprison than others.
Last year, the Legislature passed a South Florida prison-privatization plan that lawmakers said could save taxpayers up to $40 million a year.
But the state was sued by the Police Benevolent Association, the union that formerly represented corrections officers.
Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford of Tallahassee eventually ruled that the state’s plan is unconstitu- tional because it was approved as part of the annual budget and not as a separate law.
Attorney General Pam Bondi is appealing Fulford’s decision.
The Senate rules com- mittee introduced new legislation to work around Fulford’s ruling and allow privatization of state services.
Separately, the corrections department announced last week it was shuttering seven other state prisons and four work camps, all of which employ nearly 1,300 people, because of a decreasing prison population.
Prison privatization proponents say it guarantees savings that can be put toward education and public health.
Estimates show that figure at $22 million to $45 million a year. The bill requires at least 7 percent savings.
Correctional workers still oppose the idea. They say the plan will put state employees out of work and reduce public and inmate safety.