Gov. Rick Scott and leaders of the Florida House rejected appeals to save $28 million in prison programs Friday, choosing instead to allow hundreds of layoffs at inmate transition and treatment programs throughout the state when the programs close at the end of June.
The cuts offered up by the Florida Department of Corrections will reduce access to dozens of privately run programs that had a proven track record of preventing offenders from returning to crime and drugs.
They will also achieve what FDC Secretary Julie Jones has tried and failed to do since 2016: sever the state's dependence on non-profit community providers, allowing the state to develop its own yet-to-be created programs at what Jones believes will be less cost behind the prison gates.
The Florida Senate tried to find an alternative "that would have allowed other services to remain intact during the upcoming fiscal year,'' said Katie Betta, the Senate communications director on Friday. But when the governor and House leadership disagreed by the Friday deadline, state law allowed the cuts to go forward.
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The move has drawn a strong rebuke from providers, employers of inmates on work release, and families of inmates who were preparing to transition back to society but instead have been sent back to prison.
"We need to scream loud to Tallahassee. Not only are you taking jobs, you're taking lives,'' said Jackie Arafat, a manager at Popeye's in Pompano Beach. In the last week, her restaurant lost five employees who were inmates at the Turning Point Bridge transition program and were sent back to prison.
"I believe they are taking hope away from a lot of people,'' she said. "They are destroying a lot of lives."
It is also leaving staff at the 33 substance abuse and treatment facilities across the state looking for work on this holiday weekend.
"There's no guarantee I'll be here. I'm taking it one day at a time,'' said Alberto Rendon, assistant facilities director at Transition House in Kissimmee, which serves more than 150 inmates.
A veteran who was a substance abuse officer for much of his 24-year career in the Navy, Rendon was hired to teach a support class at Transition House in 2010, promoted to lead counselor and then to lead the facility.
Now with the state ending most of their treatment programs, he said, half of his staff will be lost and inmates "will go back on the street with $50 in their pockets and a bus pass. For an addict, that's enough to get them back on the streets and into the cycle, and they'll be back in prison."
When Jones announced the cuts last month, she said they were necessary because the agency needed nearly $50 million in additional money to renew a prison healthcare contract with Centurion of Florida LLC, which expires June 30.
She found $20 million of reductions in prison operating costs, including cutting prison librarians and chaplains, and then found the remaining $28 million by cutting inmate treatment programs that have a recidivism rate of about 5 percent.
Jones declined an interview for this story, but she has previously said she hopes the cuts will be temporary and that the Legislature will help them restore the cuts when it returns to Tallahassee in November.
But Lori Costantino-Brown, CEO of Bridges of America, which will lose 300 beds at substance abuse centers in Pompano Beach, Bradenton, Orlando, Jacksonville and Auburndale, is convinced that with a $2.3 billion budget, reductions could have come from a broader cross-section of vendors that serve the prison system. Instead, she said she believes Jones targeted programs she has wanted to end since 2016.
"You can't conclude anything but that this is a win-win for her [Jones],'' Costantino-Brown said Friday. "She didn't want to do the programs and was systematically dismantling them."
In April 2016, Jones announced that the Pompano Beach Bridges of America work release center would have to close because her agency needed the office space and the Bridges' lease was up. It then told the company that it would also cancel the Bradenton Bridge contract in July, forcing 84 transition inmates and 36 work-release inmates to move.
After several state and local officials protested the move, FDC backed down and signed contracts to keep the programs in both locations for two years.
By September 2016, Jones announced that her research showed that "60 percent or $15 million of the Department’s in-prison substance use disorder budget was dedicated to treating a small percentage of inmates who were among the least likely to return to prison following release."
Jones said she would initiate a program to use the same resources to target inmates "with a greater likelihood of re-offending."
The agency did not respond to a request seeking information on how many contracts it has revised, and how much additional programming has been put in place for treatment programs for high-risk offenders. Michelle Glady, FDC spokesperson, denied the cuts to the private vendors were targeted with this policy objective in mind.
"This was not picking on certain areas,'' she said. "It truly was the only other areas that could be cut."
But the vendors warn that resuming a relationship with the state after this latest round of cuts will be difficult.
"I've been fighting and fighting to hold on and we've been getting eaten a bite at a time,'' said Costantino-Brown. "Now we are in wipe out. We're all non-profits. You either do something different or go away and most are just going away."
Tom Griffin, CEO of Transition House in Kissimmee, which will lose half of his 30-member staff, blames the governor for not providing more forceful leadership.
"The governor has the ability to stop it because he has money in his rainy day fund to do this,'' he said. "State economists have said with the opioid crisis, a majority of the people entering prison have a drug problem. It makes no sense to be shutting down treatment programs now."
Scott, now a U.S. Senate candidate, has kept his distance from the conflict, saying he recommended a $169 million increase for FDC this year, including pay raises and more money for programming that is now being cut, and blaming the Legislature for failing to follow through. The Legislature did give FDC an unprecedented amount of new money this year, but nearly $100 million of it was the result of court orders and lawsuits stemming from the agency's repeated failure to pay for Hepatitis C drugs, care for disabled inmates and mental health treatment.
Under Scott's tenure, the agency has suffered through a tumultuous period. The agency faces a chronic staffing shortage, with only enough corrections officers to serve 86,000 inmates in a system that houses 96,000, an explosion in illegal drugs and contraband smuggled into prison and an increase in inmate deaths and violent offenses.
The FDC budget had been whittled to its core by Scott and lawmakers during the recession and, only in recent years, has it received piecemeal increases in funding for vehicle replacement, critical maintenance and repairs.
The governor has asked for and received funding for one-time pay increases and hiring bonuses for staff, in an attempt at preventing turnover, but agency officials have said those efforts have not proven successful and staff shortages remain so acute that they have cut visiting hours in half for families of inmates.
And with the opioid crisis at its apex, officials say an estimated 70 percent of new inmates arrive with a substance abuse problem that requires medical care. Family members, who have written the Herald/Times, say that access to illegal drugs, particularly K2, a synthetic marijuana, is abundant and available throughout the system.
Testimonials about the effectiveness of the now-closed programs have come from former inmates.
Mark Krancer of Jacksonville was released from prison in 2014. He now has a thriving photography business and a job with the Florida Times-Union. He credits his ability to turn his life around to Bridges of Jacksonville, a transition and re-entry program.
"Without the Bridges, I would have been lost, and who knows where I would be now,'' he said in an email to the Herald/Times. "But I know my life would be very different. I have had many friends go back behind bars after being released, and it hurts me deeply to see. It affects me personally because I know that will happen more when that feeling of hopelessness in transition as a newly released offender overcomes someone."
Ian Pinkerton, 24, graduated Turning Point Bridge on April 24, after serving five years in prison for burglary, and said he feels fortunate to get out before the cuts came down.
"When you come home from behind the wall, you come home to nothing,'' he told the Herald. “Before Bridges I’d have given up. I would have said screw it. But now I have a different look at life.”
Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey and Tampa Bay Times reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.