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Judge backs Florida Department of Corrections in contract dispute

An administrative law judge has sided with the Florida Department of Corrections in a contracting dispute that delves into the way substance-abuse treatment services are provided in the corrections system.

Judge Lisa Shearer Nelson last week recommended the dismissal of a challenge filed by Bridges of America Inc., which contracts with the state to run an Orlando facility that includes an inmate work-release program and a transition program that provides substance-abuse treatment services.

The department in August released what is known as a “request for proposals” — a contracting process somewhat similar to soliciting bids — for operation of a community release center in the Orlando area. While the proposal included an increase in work-release beds, it did not include the transition program with substance-abuse services.

Bridges of America, whose current contract for the Orlando program is scheduled to expire in December, launched a legal challenge, arguing the department violated part of the state budget by moving forward with the proposal without submitting it for review by the governor’s office and House and Senate budget chairmen. Bridges of America also publicly took issue with the concept of the changes, which would shift more substance-abuse services into prisons.

But Nelson ruled against Bridges of America in a 30-page recommended order Wednesday, saying in part that it had not shown the proposal is “arbitrary and capricious.”

“The specifications are consistent with the department’s intended restructuring of substance-abuse treatment and work release opportunities for inmates,” Nelson wrote. “Whether or not the plan is ultimately successful, the thought process behind the specifications included in the RFP (request for proposals) is to address legitimate concerns for providing the most treatment to the greatest number of inmates.”

As a recommended order, Nelson’s ruling goes back to the department for a final decision about whether to dismiss the challenge.

Along with the legal challenge, Bridges of America launched a public-relations campaign against the proposed changes in Orlando. Bridges of America and the department also tangled earlier in the year about the operation of facilities in Broward and Manatee counties before reaching an agreement.

In a document filed in October, attorneys for Bridges of America said the changes in the Orlando area are a first step toward a major change “whereby substance abuse transition beds are eliminated from community correctional centers in favor of providing substance abuse treatment behind prison walls.”

“Bridges fully intended to submit a proposal to continue providing a community correctional facility offering substance abuse transition beds and work release beds, however, Bridges has determined that it is financially infeasible to operate a facility in Orange County that only houses up to 75 work release inmates,” the document said.

But Nelson wrote that state law doesn’t require such transition services at community-release centers.

“What petitioner (Bridges of America) is really challenging is the department’s intention … to expand its work-release beds at community release centers and move more of its substance-abuse treatment behind the fence where more inmates may be served,” she wrote. “While the department is hoping that this model will result in savings and the ultimate increase in treatment of more needy inmates, it will also result in less lucrative contracts for vendors.”

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