Last year Florida paid $77 million in overtime to staff its state prisons, an exploding price tag stemming from the inability to hire and keep correctional officers at the state’s Department of Corrections.
Why is this happening? The problem begins with starting salaries of just $33,500.
That works out to about $16 an hour — the eighth lowest among the 10 largest prison systems in the country, corrections data show.
As a result, more than four out of every 10 new correctional officers leave their jobs within a year, according to the Department of Corrections. Nearly six out of every 10 — 57 percent — leave within two years.
Half of the state’s correctional officers have 2.2 years or less of experience in the prison system. The department, which is the state’s largest agency, employs some 24,000 workers, with 80 percent of them correctional officers.
It has left the majority of state prisons with officer vacancy rates of 10 to even 20 percent in some prisons, according to the DOC data.
The turnover and vacancies have resulted in ballooning overtime costs to adequately staff a prison system with some 96,000 inmates in Florida. In fact, the $77 million paid last year compares to less than $10 million in annual overtime payments in 2008-09.
“Overtime is exploding in the Department of Corrections,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who oversees the criminal justice budget in the Florida Senate.
“I don’t know how much louder we can scream that this department is in crisis,” he said. “These numbers are completely unsustainable across the board.”
A “department in crisis” has become a consistent refrain for Brandes as lawmakers head toward their 2020 session, which begins in January. But the question remains how aggressively the Legislature and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis will deal with the issue.
Thus far, Brandes says he has been disappointed.
“We have to get in front of this. We have to address it,” he said. “Frankly, we need a plan. And to date, the strategic plans that I have seen are anemic at best.”
The Department of Corrections’ request for the 2020-21 budget year, which starts in July, highlights the system’s problem with hiring and keeping correctional officers.
“Staffing at the department has reached critically low levels and many of the staff currently employed are extremely inexperienced. The negative impacts of these staffing problems cannot be understated,” the department said.
Those staff shortages “impact every facet” of the agency.
Over the last decade, it has resulted in a system where inmate on inmate assaults have increased by 67 percent. Inmate assaults on officers have increased by 46 percent. Contraband seizures — such as drugs and cell phones — have increased by 484 percent.
The “use of force” incidents to subdue prisoners jumped to 9,672 last year, a 54 percent increase since the 2009-10 budget year, according to the department.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has submitted a budget request to lawmakers that addresses some of the staffing issues.
The agency is proposing a $61 million pay adjustment that would boost correctional officer pay by $1,500 a year once they reach two years of employment and $2,500 at five years of employment. Officers with more than five years of experience would see a $4,000 increase.
Additionally, Inch wants to gradually eliminate the department’s use of 12-hour shifts, moving back to 8.5-hour shifts. But as the Florida Phoenix previously reported, the change is not popular with many correctional officers.
In testimony before the House Justice Appropriations subcommittee last week, Inch said his budget proposal is “not a fix-everything-in-one-year-type request.”
But he said it was a “solid step forward,” building on increases in the current budget, while seeking “to counter the effects of numerous years of resource shortfalls and detrimental decisions on staffing strategies.”
But Brandes remains convinced that more needs to be done, citing his recent visit to a state prison where a stabbing occurred in a dorm within his first hour at the facility.
Brandes says the threat of violence has led many inmates to join gangs for their protection. The department says about 17.5 percent of the inmates have been identified as gang members, a 141 percent increase since 2009-10.
“We have people that are joining gangs not because they want to be part of the gangs, but because that there is not functional safety and control of the dorms,” Brandes said. “That’s pretty damning on the Department of Corrections itself.”
Inch and Brandes both agree more needs to be done to provide educational and other rehabilitation programs for the inmates, the majority of whom will one day be released. Currently, only about 5 percent of the inmates participate in some type of education program.
But in the annual budget process, funding increases for the prison system will have to compete with other more politically popular initiatives such as education, health care, the environment and transportation.
“They’re not going to take $100 million of education or health care to fund the Department of Corrections. We’re going to have to find those funds within the department,” Brandes said.
He is referring to a series of initiatives that include sentencing reforms and other efforts to divert non-violent felons from the system or to release them earlier.
One proposal that Brandes supports would decrease the minimum time served for non-violent felons to 65 percent, down from the mandated 85 percent. It could yield a savings in the range of $200 million a year. The Florida Phoenix reported on the legislation in this story.
Brandes says sentencing reforms “would save a significant amount of money over time and not increase risk on the public safety side.”
But also expect Brandes to continue to warn about the failure to adequately address the myriad of problems in the state prison system.
“At some juncture, we run out of fingers and toes to stick in the dike, and things start to break,” he said. “And we’re at the breaking point.”