THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Molehills Out of Mountains

A close look at Governor Raimondo's 2021 Budget Proposal

by Deb Marini & Ricardo Gomez

Illustration by Claire Schlaikjer

published February 14, 2020


Reading budgets is like eating broccoli stems: miserable! Gina Governor Raimondo’s annual budget proposal, released this past January, is a multivolume work whose natural expansiveness—it’s legally mandated to cover every piece of state spending— tends to convolute and cloud a lot of the issues it covers. This bureaucratic obscurity is only made worse by media outlets choosing to highlight the more sensational line items, such as marijuana legalization and tax hikes.

The College Hill Independent decided to do a deep dive into Raimondo’s FY 2021 Budget Proposal and pulled out two pieces of important legislation—mountains, if you will—that have been tucked neatly within the bill and remanufactured into molehills. One line item produces savings by addressing the cost, rather than the ethics of keeping people in the state’s most inefficiently run prison. The other saves the state money by cutting 5,500 people off of Medicaid. Both turn people into numbers, then numbers into savings.

 

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Raimondo proposed a number of changes to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC), one of which intends to send 24 men to out-of-state prisons in order to save money in the state’s most expensive and inefficient prison: the High Security Facility.

An understanding of the proposal requires a bit of history on the nature of the state’s prisons. Rhode Island contains only one prison for each carceral security level—intake services, minimum, medium, maximum, and super maximum—for men held under the jurisdiction of RIDOC. According to language utilized by the Providence Journal and by the correctional officers union, the super maximum facility, High Security, is meant to house the “worst of the worst.” In reality, most of the men in High Security are there because they were unable to be rightfully placed in the lower security levels because of “enemy issues” identified by RIDOC, such as rival gang members. The invisible hand of administrative discretion also plays a significant and obscure role in the moving of men from lower-security prisons to High Security.

The facility was built in 1981 at the onset of the tough-on-crime era and, to this day, continues to perform as such. Men incarcerated in High Security spend up to twenty-three hours a day in solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time, a practice known to have extremely negative psychological and physiological effects counteractive to RIDOC’s goals of rehabilitation. In 2017, a Rhode Island Special Legislative Commission investigated RIDOC’s use of solitary confinement and at the commission’s conclusion sent RIDOC a number of recommendations. Some, such as reformed policy statements, were adopted. Others, such as limits on time spent in solitary, were ignored.

Change to High Security is primarily discussed in terms of financial savings, not in terms of common humanity. Keeping over 80 men imprisoned within High Security cost the state an annual $195,244 per person in 2019, while each of the 400 men at Maximum Security cost the state an annual $82,115 each. These costs come from the building’s physical construction; its poor sight lines, outdated design, and lack of proper programming space demand more correctional officers-per-inmate. High Security is founded both historically and physically in inhumane, punitive practices, but the high costs seem to consistently be the key force motivating policymakers to take action.

Raimondo first addressed High Security in her budget report last year. She suggested that the state could realize $5.1 million in savings through a $66 million capital improvements project that would renovate the facility in a way that would reduce the number of correctional officers needed and avoid future maintenance. This plan was met with immense pushback from the correctional officers union, the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers (RIBCO), who claimed that High Security is a “deterrent” for violence in the state’s lower-security prisons and one of the strongest forms of protection for correctional officers. The union set aside $100,000 for a campaign to slander the governor and her budget director, Jonathan Wormer, in retaliation for the budget proposal. One radio spot called on listeners to tell the governor to rescind her proposal “because if she doesn’t, blood will be on her hands.”

High Security is one of the easiest locations for COs to get overtime hours and RIDOC has an institutional trend of officers taking advantage of overtime. In 2018, 37% of full-time employees pulled at least one 32-hour “quad” (four consecutive 8 hour shifts) in 2018. While Raimondo’s plan guaranteed job security for all COs employed at High Security during the renovations, there was no guarantee for overtime availability. The proposed renovations were ultimately denied by the General Assembly, who left out $45 million in borrowing that the project hinged on.

 

In the FY 2021 budget, Raimondo is now proposing to close down two of the 12-inmate units in High Security in order to net $777,292 in savings for the state through the reduction of CO overtime. Consequently, the 24 people in these units would be sent to out-of-state prisons in return for 24 people from out-of-state,and both groups, now that they are distanced from most “enemy threats,” could be housed in their “actual classification levels.” While the original plan would have saved money and moderately improved living recent update saw 5,500 Rhode Islanders kicked off conditions for the men in High Security, this new plan merely saves money. RIBCO has not yet issued a statement against or in support of this new proposal.

While it may be too early to make any predictions, it seems likely that this provision in the budget proposal will slide through the State House this spring if RIBCO or any activist groups representing the people incarcerated at High Security do not speak up. Raimondo’s budget also proposes an elimination of overtime in RIDOC for non-Correctional Officers and a stricter enforcement of sick leave policies among COs, both of which may distract RIBCO from the High Security closures.

Currently, there are about 80 people in Cranston spending up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. Their connections to their friends and family on the outside are already strikingly limited, and the transfer of 24 of them could only isolate them more. While the transfer could prove beneficial to some, it is guaranteed not to benefit the 50 men left behind in archaic, cruel conditions.

 

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 According to a report from the Senate Fiscal Office, the Governor’s budget also includes an update to health care technology that will deny Medicaid to 5,500 Rhode Islanders. When Rhode Island launched the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) in 2016, the system was meant to centralize and simplify the deployment of benefits like food stamps, Medicaid, and child care assistance for hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders. Despite a variety of red flags, the infrastructure project was launched without a backup and led to a series of payment disputes, disruptively overcrowded field offices, and application backlogs so immense that the ACLU of Rhode Island sued over the issue. Behind this debacle—which put a hold on the many services essential to Rhode Islanders—was Deloitte, a multinational professional services firm that designed the error-ridden computer system. Deloitte’s mismanagement of this state project put a serious spotlight on the role of private business entities in the provisioning of vital public benefits.

Additionally, the cost to operate the benefits infrastructure project has grown to more than $656 million after Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration reached a deal to extend Deloitte’s contract through 2021 despite its serious failures leading to the damaging 2016 launch. Reports in 2019 disclosed that state taxpayers will put up $154 million for UHIP while the rest of cost will be covered by the federal government.

To justify the cost of UHIP, state officials stressed how UHIP would pay for itself by more efficiently removing ineligible individuals from social services. In 2017, officials set out their vision of optimizing the deployment of social services by establishing the aggressive goal of removing 20,000 individuals from Rhode Island’s Medicaid on a curt four-month timetable. Healthcare means humans lives and here, optimization is being articulated in terms of more efficiently depriving people of healthcare.

That UHIP delivers essential services to some, while depriving others of those very same services, makes reporting on the issue a critical concern to the public. According to the most recent oversight report, “as of January 11, 2020, open incidents totaled 206 – a 97 percent drop since December 2017.” This reportimplies that UHIP has improved since its launch and isactually mitigating problems of bureaucratic excess inorder to help people.

What remains questionable is the state’s commit-ment to making sure that UHIP’s operations remainequitable and transparent. That the UHIP’s mostrecent update saw 5,500 Rhode Islanders kicked offMedicaid without proper notice makes it abundantlyclear that UHIP still needs to be carefully monitoreddespite its apparent efficiency improvements. “Whydid the Raimondo administration not disclose this?”Sam Bell, a State Senator, asked. “Now that Raimondohired theProJo’s ace health and human servicesreporter Jennifer Bogdan to run her communications,are there enough reporters keeping track on UHIP?”Clearly, the question of democratic control and trans-parency remains a continuous source of concern. AsSenator Bell explains, “In the previous Medicaidpurges, you were supposed to get one letter and a10-day warning where you had a chance to try and saveyour healthcare if the information behind the denialwas incorrect.” The most recent update—which failedto send those warnings—calls attention to transpar-ency issues. UHIP deals in matters of human life andoperates with very little interaction with the lives iteffects most.The absence of clear means to appeal decisionsof disqualification and the failure to send out propernotice about terminations mirrors how the budgetaffects Rhode Islanders immediately while remainingconceptually inaccessible.

 

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At the end of the day, these aspects of Governor Raimondo’s budget proposal prioritize theoretical savings over human lives. While it's not emblematic of active immorality in her camp, it does expose the dangers of the “numbers game” she is forced to play by a state that demands savings and a statehouse that is at the mercy of lobbyists and unions.

 

DEB MARINI B’22 and RICARDO GOMEZ B’22 love Kafka and all things bureau.