Report: Understaffing, Contraband Problems Among Areas Florida Prisons Still Need Work

Jan 12, 2016

Brad Sassatelli with CGL (right) speaking during Monday's Senate Criminal Justice Committee, while Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones (left) looks on.
Credit Florida Channel

The Florida Department of Corrections continues to undergo staffing troubles, roofs need repairs, and salary parity is still a main concern among correctional officers. That’s according to a recently completed study looking into the operations of the prison agency.

CGL—an independent consulting firm—conducted the study, at the request of the state. Brad Sassatelli with CGL says using focus groups, they found two areas of primary concern for correctional staff.

“1) The salary was the number one issue they mentioned, but 2) the lack of number of staff to support them, and the fact there were a large number of TEAs—untrained staff—in the institutions, which raised their concern for their own safety because they had staff working with them who really didn’t know the procedures and how to respond,” he said.

That’s something Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker) says he’s aware of as well. He’s the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice committee, which asked for the findings on the CGL report.

“Well, actually, that I found was the number one issue, when I toured the facilities and I asked, was the number one thing that I need is a person to back me up, to where I feel safe. If I get into a critical situation, that I have someone that can back me up,” said Evers.

And, based off informal surveys, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has made similar remarks—which is reflected in her budget request.

“In my officer surveys…the officer surveys told me that having someone to back them up, to get the staffing right was more important than a raise,” she said, speaking to reporters, months ago. “That was very clear.”

According to the CGL report, Jones’ agency has an up-to-date hiring process. But, it also states the prison agency still loses around 3,000 officers per year. And, it’s common for the average correctional officer to have less than a year and half of experience.

Sassatelli says a large number of new hires have also not yet gone through the required certification training for correctional officers—limiting what they can do.

And, he adds staffing levels are becoming a huge problem that are leading to other issues.

“Because of the staffing levels, there’s a limited number of searches going on. You’re leaving one officer in a housing unit to supervise hundreds of inmates,” Sassatelli said. “Because of the lack of searches, we saw a significant contraband issue within the facilities.”

Contraband can include drugs, weapons, and tobacco products. Prison chief Julie Jones has acknowledged it as a problem. Most announced arrests so far under her tenure as Secretary have been contraband-related.

And, the study found the tobacco policy is a contributing factor.

“One of the issues we heard time and time again in our facility visits was the tobacco policy,” Sassatelli added. “They have a bifurcated tobacco policy, which is unusual. You don’t find that in facilities across the country. Staff are allowed to bring in tobacco. Inmates are not, and this has created a major issue for the Department of Corrections.”

So, the CGL report recommends either getting rid of the policy altogether or allowing everyone—correctional staff and inmates alike—to have tobacco products.

Other suggestions include making a clearer use of force policy as well as upgrading cameras, metal detectors, and transport vehicles. Sassatelli says roof repairs—included in Jones’ budget—is also a problem.

“Although a great amount of work had been done in the past year, there’s a significant amount of work that needs to be done,” he stated. “We saw roofs that were patched and then repatched and then repatched a third time. One facility had 22 roofs that were in need of repair. We saw perimeter fences that were deteriorating and rusting and perimeter detection systems—systems that are designed to give you some kind of notification if someone is trying to escape—that were failing. One facility—a medical unit—had a roof repaired, and then found out the water damage was so severe that it had mold and they could not occupy that medical unit.”

Jones says she’s already looking into the report’s recommendations as well as doing some work of her own. She’s currently working with the Association of State Correctional Auditors, or ASCA—which has conducted audits for the agency in the past.

“And, I’m bringing ASCA back in to do a deep dive and do an extensive staffing evaluation based off their recommendation,” said Jones.

That "deep dive" started Tuesday.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.