TALLAHASSEE - Inmates are sewing their own clothes and will soon start washing dishes by hand in sinks they've built themselves.
It's all part of Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews' attempt to whittle a nearly $50 million deficit in this year's $2.1 billion budget.
Crews told the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday that he's on a cost-cutting mission to reduce the deficit, which stems from issues such as health care costs.
Thus far, Crews said he's saved nearly $900,000 by re-bidding the agency's contract for paper towels and toilet paper, about $254,000 by de-privatizing pest control services and more than $500,000 by buying used cars for probation officers, thus doing away with mileage reimbursements. The agency also saved about $600,000 through consolidating office leases.
DOC also saved $18 million by getting federal assistance for HIV-AIDS medications, $3.5 million with a new drug formulary for some medications and $1.4 million by changing inhaler protocols, Crews said.
Mothballing kitchen equipment in the state's aging prisons won't just give inmates dishpan hands - it's another way Crews plans to scrimp.
Crews said dishwashers "are starting to tear up" and are expensive to repair. Instead of purchasing three-sink combos required for safe scrubbing, Crews said his staff suggested that they could build the sinks themselves, possibly with inmate assistance.
Meanwhile, the prisoners have also started to sew their own uniforms as well as their bedclothes, Crews said.
"Sometimes when you ride by it looks like Fred Sanford's house. We actually hang the clothes out to dry," Crews, who in December became the sixth secretary in six years at the agency.
What seems like small-change savings given the size of the red ink "may seem miniscule, but I do want the committee to understand we're doing everything we can to help and get us out of this deficit," Crews said.
Crews expects an update on the projected deficit, now estimated at $45.4 million, in two weeks. That's less than half of November's projected $119 million deficit, thanks to about $43 million from the Legislature, a hiring freeze and a high vacancy rate due to turnover.
Crews said the agency was responsible for at least part of the deficit by failing to control health-care costs. DOC has contracted with two private firms, Corizon and Wexford, to provide health care and, the agency hopes, keep in check spending on services for an aging prison population as well as ailing inmates. The outsourcing is supposed to be completed Oct. 13 and is expected to save between $40 million and $50 million annually, Crews said.
But Crews blamed some of the deficit on factors beyond his control, including bid protests, a nine-month legal challenge to the health care privatization and a dispute over the broader privatization of more than half of the state's prisons approved by lawmakers two years ago but later overturned by the courts.
The department achieved some savings by shuttering 10 prisons in recent years but held off on closing Glades Correctional Institution in 2012 for more than six months because of lawmakers' and local community leaders' concerns about the impact on an already blighted economy. The delay added more than $6.7 million to the deficit, Crews explained.
Extra overtime costs caused by switching to 12-hour daily shift and bid protests also contributed to the deficit, Crews said.
Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the agency's budget has been slashed by more than $484 million over the last five years, even though the inmate population has gone up.
"We didn't get here overnight and we're not going to cure it overnight," Bradley said of the deficit.
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, suggested saving money by again considering the controversial privatization plan pushed by Gov. Rick Scott.
"I'm not disparaging those that are there working. We need them. But when NASA wants to service the international space station they turn to the private sector. When we landed a man on the moon that was a private company. I think our governor's right on target," Altman said.
But Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth suggested lawmakers could generate bigger savings by sending fewer inmates to prison in the first place, especially those with addiction problems.
Bradley agreed, saying the majority of inmates convicted of drug-related crimes spend less than two years behind bars.
"They're not getting treatment. They're being housed. And I don't know how smart that is," Bradley said.