Update: Circuit Judge Charles Dodson in Tallahassee issued an order Wednesday siding with the corrections officers’ union, finding no legal basis to overturn the arbitration decision that the shift change was subject to collective bargaining.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch argues a key to reducing the pathologies afflicting the state’s prison system – including high stress levels, crumbling facilities and violence – is to cut daily shifts for corrections officers from 12 hours to 8-½.
What hasn’t been discussed much publicly is that his department already made that change last year at seven correctional institutions, according to a complaint filed in May in a Leon County Circuit Court by attorneys representing correction officers. Inch has proposed in his budget request to the state Legislature to expand use of the new work hours.
Many rank-and-file corrections officers object to the idea, which they believe will crimp their earnings and send morale even lower than it is now. Their union argues that Inch can’t force shorter shifts absent their agreement via collective bargaining.
A neutral arbiter agreed with the union in ruling in April on its grievance, but the department is still proceeding. The Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents corrections officers, has filed a lawsuit over the matter in Leon County Circuit Court, naming the state Corrections and Management Services departments.
Working and former corrections officers made their distaste for the workday reduction clear in interview comments and emails to the Florida Phoenix. Their complaints centered on the longer work week that shorter shifts entail, which can complicate officers’ childcare arrangements and otherwise disrupt established family schedules and commutes.
What’s more, they said, officers will lose four hours per month by going to the shorter workday. That can hurt when the average officer’s salary is $33,500.
“If we get 10 calls a day, eight to nine of them are saying, ‘We don’t want to go the other shifts,” said Jimmy Baiardi, director of operations for corrections officers with the Florida Police Benevolent Association.
“Of the staff I know, it’s about 70 percent for staying on 12s and 30 percent in favor of 8s,” said Philip Maginnis, a 25-year veteran of Union Correctional Institution who retired last year. “A lot of other factors come into play, too. Single parents, 50/50 custody parents.”
The case is before Judge Charles Dodson in Tallahassee, who has yet to rule on the department’s request that he overturn the arbitrator’s decision in favor of the PBA. “If he confirms the arbitrator’s award, I would expect the agency to appeal,” said attorney Stephen Webster, representing the PBA.
Corrections departments around the country began implementing 12-hour shifts about a decade ago, starting in states such as Indiana, Ohio, Alabama, and eventually Florida.
“Twelve-hour shifts will give correctional officers more time with their families and put more money in their wallets,” Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss predicted in 2011 while rolling out the plan. “For taxpayers, it saves money because it reduces overtime and decreases the number of officers needed at the facility.”
In its grievance, the PBA complained that Florida’s corrections officials changed shifts from 12 hours to 8 hours for officers at the mental health units at five correctional facilities, as well as the main units at Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont and at the Florida Women’s Reception Center in Ocala.
The state has argued the move is not subject to mandatory bargaining but rather represents the exercise of existing contractual authority. The department did not return the Phoenix’s request for comment on this and other aspects of this story.
Inch presented his proposed budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year to lawmakers last month, seeking $292 million to hire additional officers to expand the project statewide.
Inch believes the prison system began spiraling out of control at about the same time the state adopted 12-hour shifts, suggesting a correlation. In recent testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, the secretary said the turnover rate among corrections officers has increased by 150 percent since then; inmate-on-inmate assaults by 67 percent; inmate-on-staff assaults by 47 percent; and contraband seizures by an astounding 484 percent.
The prison system has been in the news a lot this year, and almost all the attention has been negative.
The system’s inspector general and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement continue to investigate the alleged beating of female inmate Cheryl Weimar at Lowell Correctional Institution in August. Attorneys for Weimar say the incident has left her paralyzed and that she will require tens of millions of dollars in care for the rest of her life.
Earlier in the summer, a cellphone video showed officers beating an inmate at Lake Correctional Institution. The subsequent investigation led to four officers being fired and arrested.
In another incident, the former brother-in-law of Tampa state Rep. Dianne Hart was allegedly assaulted by corrections officers at the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando, leaving him with a broken jaw, nose, cheekbone and eye socket.
The working and former corrections officers who spoke with the Phoenix – some of them confidentially for fear of worksite repercussions – disputed the notion that their 12-hour day causes some officers to lose their cool. But they conceded that chronic short-staffing adds to their workplace stress and has led to the hiring of younger officers who aren’t mature enough to handle the prison environment.
They point to legislation adopted this year allowing the department to hire officers as young as 18 years old; previously, the minimum age was 19. The change was a response to chronic staff vacancies and resignations (the department says it intends to hire 3,000 correctional officers over the next year).
The effect has been dilution of the quality and quantity of corrections officers in state institutions, the officers said.
“We’re short staffed,” said one corrections lieutenant who works at Florida State Prison in Raiford. “We don’t have the time to spend with the new officers – and then, of course, we have this generation that we now have that knows everything,” the officer said sarcastically, discounting the younger hires’ propensity to accept guidance.
“Most 19-year-olds who come in aren’t mature enough to do this job,“ a veteran corrections sergeant said. “I could not do this job at 19.”
Regarding the alleged beat-downs, when asked to explain what leads officers to lose their professionalism, one corrections officer seemed to go out of his way to absolve assailants.
“How do you know that inmates didn’t head-butt the captain and spit on the officer’s face?” the officer said. “You don’t know if that inmate had a shank or a weapon, and if he’s using deadly force. You’re worried about going home at night.”
Inch’s idea to move back to an eight-hour day for officers isn’t novel. His predecessor, Julie Jones, made a similar request in 2016.
“Poor staff retention, increasing overtime expenditures, introduction of contraband, and staffing shortages are all due in some part to the officer fatigue and burnout associated with 12-hour shifts,” Jones said at the time.
Meanwhile, Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, is closely scrutinizing the department, which he described at the conclusion of a committee meeting last month as “in crisis.”
It’s a notion that Jimmy Baiardi from the Florida PBA doesn’t disagree with.
“The prison system is in crisis,” he says. “It’s not staffed properly. The facilities are not in good shape. It’s mostly budgetary issues that have created these problems, and the large turnover of staff in any kind of business organization there would be some problems.”