In an alarming portrait of Florida’s prisons, state Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch recently warned lawmakers that the system is woefully understaffed and could erupt in violence as tensions mount.
Inch didn’t mince words, using language such as “collapse” and “crisis.”
Asked by a group of state senators to identify at least one prison that could be closed to save money, Inch refused.
“I have not recommended closing a prison. I’m not going to recommend closing a prison today, not in the near term,” Inch said.
“I do not want to make a shortsighted decision that could collapse the entire system,” he said.
Inch made the comments last week as Florida budget-makers in the Senate were looking for spending cuts in the Department of Corrections. The Legislature convenes March 2 to build a budget for 2021-22.
Aging, sickly and overwhelmed
Florida’s prison system is the third-largest in the nation by population, following Texas and California, according to U.S. Department of Justice rankings.
Florida incarcerates about 83,000 men, women and teens in 50 major state prisons, seven private prisons, and scores of other facilities such as work camps and re-entry centers. Seventeen of the prisons are at least 40 years old, seven are more than 50 years old, and one is more than 100 years old — Union Correctional Institution.
Since the pandemic started, 205 state inmates have died of COVID-19, the second-highest death toll among all state prisons in the nation, close behind California, according to The Marshall Project COVID tracker.
Close to 18,000 inmates have contracted COVID at some point, including Secretary Inch and Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon, according to the Corrections Department.
Inch says the system is starving for personnel to supervise the large inmate population, and that prison consolidation would make the problem worse.
Gov. Ron DeSantis proposes in his 2021-22 budget that the Department of Corrections be funded at $2.9 billion, a $72 million increase mostly allocated to staff wages and operational expenses.
Inch, who retired at the rank of provost marshal general after 35 years in the Army and directed the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a year, said it will take that and more to raise the quality of Florida’s prison system to a “solid satisfactory” by 2024.
Half of the prisons are at “emergency staffing” levels and more soon will be, Inch said, but inmates in the understaffed prisons cannot be transferred to better-staffed prisons because there is not enough room.
To make matters worse, Inch said, the system is expecting a surge in new inmates as thousands of court cases that were delayed due to coronavirus resume under new pandemic precautions.
He said the system took in 14,000 fewer inmates since COVID-19 took hold in Florida than it typically does, and that the backlog will give way soon.
Republicans Sen. Keith Perry, representing parts of Alachua, Putnam and Marion counties, and Sen. Dennis Baxley, representing parts of Marion, Lake and Sumter counties, said it is their job as members of a Senate budget subcommittee over prison spending in 2021-22 to make cuts to offset revenue shortfalls attributed to the pandemic.
The stated purpose of their budget meeting last week was to learn about prison capacity and options for consolidating and closing certain prisons, for cost-savings.
“We have a budget that we’re going to be within, we’re getting to spend X amount of money. Where are we going to spend it?” Perry said. “We have to have an answer at the end of the day.”
“That could happen to us”
In opposition, Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, said the Legislature is overdue for reforming the system. Last year, his bill commissioning a $2 million study to find strategic solutions passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. DeSantis.
“Is it safe to say the department’s on the verge of collapse?” Brandes asked Inch.
“I’ve already stated it’s a system in crisis,” Inch answered, warning that prisons under this much pressure can erupt in violence. He cited a prison riot at New Mexico State Penitentiary in February 1980, which left 33 inmates dead and seven correctional officers with serious injuries.
“Last year, and this year I talked about it again, the cautionary tale of what happened … at the New Mexico state prison, as shown in the book ‘The Devil’s Butcher Shop.’ That really happened. And that level of brutality, that murder, those rapes, an entire facility being lost for 36 hours, is a terrible thing, and that could happen to us,” Inch told the senators.
“I think we’re two years away from passing the tipping point where that could happen to us, if we continue to get better. If we get worse, we’re there fast. And that’s my caution to you.”
Brandes said it’s past time for lawmakers to adopt measures such as gain time, reduced sentences for qualified inmates, and early release of gravely ill and elderly inmates – measures he has sponsored in previous legislative sessions to no avail and is sponsoring again this year. He said tested alternatives to incarceration pose no threat to public safety.
“Unless the Legislature acts … this situation doesn’t in the short term or even in the medium term get meaningfully better,” Brandes said. “What I see us facing is a pot of boiling water sitting on the stove, and we can either choose to release the lid and let some of that water boil over … or we can put a brick on it, sit on top of it and let it blow us apart.”
Secretary Inch and Deputy Secretary Dixon said the staffing crisis is not because there aren’t enough positions authorized but because prisons cannot keep positions filled at the level of pay, benefits and hazards that come with the job.
Cut spending or change course?
In the state House of Representatives, budget makers found a conundrum while looking for spending cuts. They were scrutinizing a Corrections Department request for $14 million for 11 capital projects – including replacing failing electrical systems in two prisons – deemed essential.
“What happens if you don’t get any of these?” asked Rep. Mike Caruso, a Palm Beach County Republican on the committee that proposes prison funding in the House. He said he wants to see the projects ranked from most necessary to least.
Darren Fancher, director of corrections facilities management and building construction, said the department recognizes this is lean budget year and only asked for projects it must complete to avoid facility failures or litigation or both.
“We could have asked for more, but we felt these 11 projects represent the most critical of our needs,” Fancher said.
Like Brandes in the Senate, Rep. Mike Beltran, a Hillsborough County Republican, and Rep. Mike Gottlieb, a Broward Democrat, want to know how the Legislature can help solve the problems of overcrowding, understaffing, and failing structures by changing the way Florida sentences and imprisons people.
Beltran and Gottlieb wanted to know how many inmates are being held to complete their sentences despite being too sick or too old to require being incarcerated in the name of public safety. Conditional medical release is rarely authorized by the governor and Cabinet – currently composed of Gov. DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat.
“Is there something the Legislature should or could do to revise those conditional medical release criteria, either from a compassionate release standpoint or from a fiscal standpoint, probably both? It’s probably in everyone’s interest not to incarcerate people if we don’t have to,” Beltran said. “I’m just having trouble understanding how a dialysis patient or a cancer patient would be a threat to society such that they need to be not only incarcerated but treated at taxpayer expense.”
“Perhaps there is a bill there in terms of a compassionate release for somebody over a certain age serving a certain type of a sentence,” Gottlieb said.
He wants the Department of Corrections to provide data on how many elderly and/or chronically ill inmates could be released safely based on the nature of their crimes. Brandes already has introduced a bill in the Senate assigning Inch the authority to release those inmates if qualified, without going through the governor and Cabinet.