Overwhelmed and understaffed: FL’s 96 prison inspectors faced 10,991 investigations last year

A Florida prison Credit: Florida Department of Corrections

When a corrections officer was arrested last week for a prison beating of her former brother-in-law, state Rep. Dianne Hart thanked the Florida Department of Corrections Office of Inspector General for its work in the investigation.

“Unfortunately, these are not isolated or rare events within Florida’s prison system. Good staff is under-supported and bad staff is out of control,” said Hart, a Democrat from Tampa who is seeking state prison reforms.

The prison system’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) is the critical agency for maintaining that control and ferreting out wrongdoing in the system, both among wayward corrections officers and inmates who continue to commit crimes.

But it turns out the department’s OIG investigative staff is overwhelmed, leading to delays and questions about the quality and accuracy of the investigations.

In the last budget year that ended on June 30, the 96 inspectors were responsible for resolving 10,991 cases. As a comparison, the Florida Department of Children and Families’ OIG had only 206 cases last year.

It works out to each prison inspector handling some 115 cases.

“High volume case assignment has (a) negative impact on quality, accuracy and timeliness of the investigative process,” the Department of Corrections said in its latest request for state funds.

“In addition, investigative delays have a measurable negative impact on the performance of institutional programs as corrections staff under investigation are generally placed on ‘no inmate’ contact pending resolution.” That means corrections officers are still on the job and getting paid, but not dealing with inmates.

“A more manageable caseload will help ensure that investigations are thorough, reliable and timely,” the department said.

The OIG’s Bureau of Investigations “is responsible for conducting criminal and administrative investigations and providing oversight of all use of force incidents. This includes investigations into deaths, public corruption and criminal efforts that compromise the safety and security of prisons,” according to the Department of Corrections.

The OIG’s report for 2018-19 shows the prison inspectors’ work led to the arrest of 103 prison staff members, including corrections officers. It was a 30 percent increase over the prior year.

The most common charges against prison staff included attempts to bring contraband, such as cigarettes, drugs or cell phones, into the prisons or accepting bribes, the report shows.

The OIG’s work also resulted in the arrest of 169 inmates, with the most common charges including possession of contraband and assaults on correctional officers, the report shows.

In his preface to his agency’s annual report, Department of Corrections Inspector General Lester Fernandez said his office “continues to work toward addressing an unmanageable caseload.”

Fernandez said some improvements have been made by setting investigative priorities, streamlining processes, among other measures.

“However, greater strides toward improvement and achieving manageable workload levels could be attained faster by increasing our current investigative (staff) levels…,” Fernandez said.

A factor in the workload was the decision to shift oversight of the prison system’s “forensic phone laboratory” to the OIG last May.

The lab receives an average of 150 illegal cell phones each week. And the lab analyzes each device and produces “intelligence reports” that can alert prison officials to possible security threats, such as gang activity.

However, the lab was “unable to keep pace with case assignments and a considerable backlog had accumulated,” according to the OIG report. Working with the company that provides the laboratory services, the OIG says it has set a goal of 75 intelligence reports per week, up from the current 30 reports.

To resolve some of these issues, the Department of Corrections is asking state lawmakers to fund an additional 20 inspectors for the OIG in the next budget year.

The increase in staffing will help the agency move toward a more “manageable” caseload, which the OIG says should be in the range of 62 to 67 cases per inspector.

Similar to problems with hiring and retaining corrections officers, the OIG also says it has difficulty keeping staff, attributing some of that to salaries that are lower for the prison system inspectors compared to inspectors in other state agencies.

As of October 2018, the average pay for the prison inspectors was $42,416 a year, compared to $51,429 for other state agency inspectors and a national average of $57,519, according to the department’s legislative budget request.

The turnover in inspector positions was 32 percent in 2018-19, up from just under 14 percent in 2011-12, according to the budget request.

Inspector pay would be boosted if lawmakers back the prison’s system request for a $61 million pay package in the next budget year, which begins July 1.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who oversees criminal justice spending in the Senate, says the OIG’s caseload and staffing problems are part of a myriad of issues facing a prison system, which has some 96,000 inmates and 24,000 staff members.

“I don’t think we know the full scope of what is going on in there. I think that’s part of the challenge,” Brandes said in an interview with the Florida Phoenix.

“There are all of these different issues that are taking place, whether it’s officer on inmate assaults, inmate on inmate assaults, contraband, these are all symptoms of a staffing problem,” Brandes said.

Brandes, who supports a series of sentencing reforms, says the staffing issues can be addressed by reducing the inmate population and increasing staff pay, including returning to an 8.5-hour shift versus the current 12-hour shifts.

But, thus far, Brandes says the Department of Corrections’ proposals, including its latest budget request, represent more of a “tactical” response rather than a long-term strategic plan to resolve the agency’s problems.

“We need a multi-year strategy to upgrade facilities, to upgrade staffing and to truly turn the department back into a department that is correcting behavior and not just warehousing (inmates),” he said.