TAMPA – A local state senator is warning that Florida could get hit by costly lawsuits if fellow legislators and Gov. Rick Scott can’t find the money to fund an independent agency set up to monitor the medical care given to Florida’s inmates.
“We have 100,000 people in prison, and we’ve got over 60 prisons,” said state Sen. Arthenia L. Joyner, D-Tampa. “We have an obligation to provide adequate care to those persons being incarcerated. I realize they’re there to be punished for having committed crimes, but we also have an obligation to provide adequate housing, food, and health care to them.”
Faced with the need to cut more than $3 billion from the state budget, the Florida Legislature voted to defund the Correctional Medical Authority – effectively abolishing an independent state agency created in 1986 in response to litigation filed against state prison conditions.
The agency’s nine employees would visit the state’s prisons, evaluating whether they were providing constitutionally adequate health care.
Democratic legislators, including Joyner and Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, have protested the move, noting that the agency was set up in response to lawsuits filed against substandard prison conditions. They urged Gov. Scott to veto the bill abolishing the CMA, which he did. But since lawmakers refused to provide any funding for the agency, it was shut down last week.
“Despite our efforts, and the governor’s veto of legislation eliminating the oversight group, the CMA was finished off behind the scenes, and outside the scrutiny of the media, the public, and other key stakeholders,” Joyner and Pafford noted in a joint statement issued to the media. “To pre-empt any attempts to hold the state of Florida in contempt, or open the door to new litigation as a result of its closure, we urge Governor Scott to explore all possible options, including the issuance of an executive order sustaining the CMA’s operations pending the return of the Legislature.”
The CMA’s annual budget was around $700,000.
In an interview with Freeline Media, Joyner predicted Florida would soon regret the decision to get rid of the agency.
“The Correctional Medical Authority is an independent agency created after a settlement in a lawsuit we were a party to,” Joyner said. “The state of Florida’s health services to inmates was monitored for 20 years. This agency was created to be a watchdog to ensure the inmates have adequate health care — mental and physical — as well as keeping the prisons from being overcrowded.”
When lawmakers eliminated the agency’s funding, Joyner said she urged Gov. Scott to veto the bill, which he did.
“Consequently, the authority still exists,” she said. But without funding, it exists in name only, she added.
“Here we are now with 100,000 inmates, and no independent agency to oversee their health care,” she said. “It’s not good for Florida. It will expose us to lawsuits. We have all these persons in our prisons who face the possibility of not having adequate health care. It’s incumbent on us to have that outside, objective scrutiny for Florida’s inmates.
“That’s why I spoke out and asked the governor to veto the bill, which he did,” she added. “Now I am hoping he can find a stopgap measure, so he can allocate enough money to keep it operating. We are hoping he will find funding to keep it open, but it actually closed last week.”
Joyner said she’ll ask lawmakers to reinstate the funding when they go back into session next year.
“We need to keep this entity open,” she said. “It was just obliterated completely. It was just abolished for budgetary reasons, and there is no logical reason we should have abolished this entity. We don’t need another black eye on the state of Florida. In a $70 billion budget, we can find enough to keep that federal agency open. Think about the lawsuits this will generate.”
Garry L. Jones, a retired lieutenant with the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee, said the state of Florida needs to remember its obligation toward inmates
“Once you’re a ward of the system, it’s up to the state to take care of you,” he said.
After retiring from the system, Jones formed Advocate4Justice, a non-profit group committed to promoting a more humane treatment of inmates. He said independent agencies like CMA serve a clear purpose.
“They oversee the prison system as well as the medical system,” he said. “They used to do a program review. They would come down for a week and check out every department, not just medical, to make sure everything is up to standards, and to make sure the inmates are given adequate care. What they used to do before the program review team would arrive at their institution is they would try to get it in order so they would not get written up not providing proper medical care to inmates.”
Targeting programs like this for budget cuts, he said, is a mistake.
“The public is fooled,” Jones said. “They’d say inmates get their medical for free, they get their teeth fixed, and so on. That used to be 35 years ago. But the system isn’t like that today. They used to get their teeth fixed and everything worked on, and now they have to take care of it themselves and pay to see a physician’s assistant.”
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