State News
7:11 pm
Fri December 21, 2012

With A New Prison Chief Named, What Challenges Is He Expected To Face?

Florida Department of Corrections new Secretary Mike Crews
Florida Department of Corrections new Secretary Mike Crews
Credit Florida Department of Corrections

The Florida Department of Corrections has a new Secretary, but he’s not new to the agency. It’s the department’s Second-In-Command Mike Crews, who was recently appointed to his new role by Governor Rick Scott. But, as the third Secretary in less than two years, Crews faces several challenges in leading the nation’s third largest prison system.

It’s been a tough year for the department with a looming budget deficit and pressure to cut costs. At least, that’s according to former Secretary Ken Tucker, who’s now retired. His last day was December 14th.

“It has been a difficult year. I came in the door with the responsibility of immediate starting a legislative session that resulted in us having to close a number of our institutions and work camps and implementation of 12 hours shifts, implementation of other substantial budget cuts," said Tucker.

Tucker took over for his predecessor, former Indiana Corrections chief Ed Buss, who left his job after eight months amid fallout over privatizing prisons in the South Florida region of the state.

Tucker, as the second Secretary under Governor Rick Scott, stayed for about twice as long, but had always been slated to retire from state employment in March 2013.

In his farewell address to the department, Tucker talked about how the agency has a high turnover rate when it comes to people at the top of the agency, pointing out that he’s the sixth Secretary in seven years.

But, his successor Mike Crews, who was appointed to the job Monday, says he hopes to break the cycle. He comes to the role with 26 years of law enforcement and corrections experience, and about a year of it was as Deputy Secretary.

“If there is a group of people who deserve some consistency and some stability, it is the Florida Department of Corrections, the hard working and dedicated that do their job every day. They do it the right way for the right reasons.”

One of Crews first jobs will be addressing the agency’s 56-million dollar deficit. Crews says a task force recently identified wasteful contracts within the department, saving the state about 9-million dollars.

Another plan is to reduce the deficit through privatizing prison health care services. But, that’s led to an ongoing legal battle between unions and the department. A judge recently ruled that the way the state tried to privatize most of the prison health care services was illegal because it was not fully vetted by the Legislature. 

The Judge did allow the state to continue with the privatization effort in South Florida. And, the agency  signed a contract with private company, Wexford Health Sources, on Tuesday.

Still, the department appealed the Judge’s ruling and Crews says if their appeal is overturned, it could blow a further hole in their budget.

“It generates about an additional 90-million dollars over 18 months.*** So, it certainly has an impact on us,” said Crews.

“That is complete crap! 90-million dollars? You’ve heard of the big lie? The official documents has them asking for more money. If they say, oh, but we have a 90-million dollar hole in our budget. That may be, but the contracts may blow a 150-million dollar hole,” remarked Doug Martin.

He's the spokesman for AFSCME, or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Martin says if the new Secretary is serious about looking at wasteful contracts, considering contracts with private companies over the prison health care services is not the way to go.

“If the state wants to save money, why don’t they go after the wasteful contracts instead of trying to keep on pushing unconstitutional and legal means of giving more wasteful contracts that are driven by lobbyists not by good public policy," said Martin. "That’s why the state’s getting ripped off. That’s why this is getting pushed.”

Another place the department could be looking to save some money is in a proposal that would allow the department to shift some of its inmates to the local jails, which could save the state about 48-million dollars a year. But, Crews says he realizes it could place a heavy burden on the counties, and a department spokeswoman called it brutal, saying it was only a creative suggestion that is most likely off the table.

However, Florida Association of Counties Spokeswoman Craigin Mosteller says it’s already been sent to the Legislature and is already out there.

“Unfortunately, once it’s on paper, the Legislature is then given the idea. And, we don’t know where the Legislature will go.  And, we certainly hope they will hear our concerns and recognize that this is just a cost shift rather than a real solution to saving some dollars," said Mosteller.

"But, at the end of the day, it’s out there. And, when we’re talking about something that’s going to impact counties statewide, well over a million dollars, we’re taking it very seriously.”

Secretary Crews says if the proposal is taken up by the Legislature, they may look into using the money saved to offset some of the costs to the counties. But, Mosteller says while she appreciates the Secretary’s suggestion, local governments are not sure the Legislature will share that same concern. For now, Crews says while he knows he has several challenges ahead, he hopes he can lead the department to doing some “amazing things.”

***A spokeswoman for the department said "the 90-million over the next 18 months” number would be the total amount that includes the current deficit, if the privatization does not happen. 

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.