Florida's prisons have a health care problem.
The state's aging prison population and the high cost of treating inmates with debilitating diseases are behind a surge in spending on health care in recent years.
A bill from Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would allow some prisoners with terminal or debilitating diseases to qualify for early release.
SB 346 is working its way through legislative committees. Many of the inmates who would qualify for conditional medical release have mandatory minimum sentences and have spent decades behind bars. Some inmates would not be eligible, including violent sex offenders and murderers.
“So we're talking about usually very old, very sick, very infirmed people who are at the very end stage of their life or severely disabled,” Brandes said. “So the likelihood that they would commit future crimes is exceptionally low.”
Four of Florida's prisons have dorms dedicated to providing specialized care for old and sick inmates. There are two at the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution in Pasco County, dubbed by some prisoners as "the old man camp."
Sen. Jeff Brandes has toured the facility.
“It's almost emotional as I walked in and saw the rows of hospital beds that line the walls of Zephryhills and the inmates whose job is to flip over the other inmates who are at the end of their life,” Brandes said. “It’s the things you don't think about when people go away.”
From his seat on the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee, Brandes has watched state spending on prison health care increase every year -- it's up to $375 million this year. The governor's budget for next year includes another $120 million.
The costs are so high because in prison, health care for elderly inmates isn't covered by Medicare or Medicaid.
And so we're dealing with people who were addicts in a younger life, have very complicated health issues, have cancer,” Brandes said. “And so we're having to provide them with medical care not covered by Medicare, not covered by Medicaid but provided by the general revenue and the hard working taxpayers of the state of Florida.”
Once approved for release, prisoners would be sent home with ankle monitors to spend their final days with their families or go directly to a nursing home where Medicare or Medicaid would help pay for their health care.
Alisha Miller spent four-and-a-half-years at Lowell Correctional Institution. In the woman's prison north of Ocala she watched her close friend with HIV get sicker and sicker.
“She went from walking on her own to being in a wheelchair, she got so sick,” Miller said. “She went from having just HIV to being full-blown AIDS.
Within six months, Miller said her friend was dead.
“I believe that had she been let out, she would still be alive today,” she said.
Miller spent time caring for sick and elderly inmates in wheelchairs at Lowell. She waited in pill lines with diabetic patients, took special care of a young woman with a spinal birth defect and helped change and dress the wounds of an elderly woman who had a double mastectomy.
“There is no care in prison,” she said. “What you are getting is the base, bottom of the barrel, minimum to help you.”
A quarter of prisoners in Florida's public correctional system are older than 50. More than 1,600 prisoners are 70 or older.
While Brandes acknowledges that less than 200 inmates would be released under his proposal, he's pitching other measures that would decrease the prison population even more, including sentencing reform and prison deferment programs.
For every 1,500 inmates that are released, Brandes estimates the state could save up to $50 million. That could free up money for other improvements.
But for now, Brandes says all of the new money is going to health care.
“That means were not spending the hundreds of millions of dollars we need to pay our guards more,” he said. “It means were not spending the tens of millions of dollars to upgrade our facilities … and frankly the millions of dollars needed to provide better education in facilities.”
Brandes says those improvements could mean the difference between warehousing prisoners and rehabilitating them.