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Florida Prison Guards Demand Pay Parity With Other Law Enforcement Officers

Ron Silver speaking
Jessica Palombo

Florida prison guards are asking state lawmakers for pay raises similar to those given to other law enforcement officers last year. The guards say low pay and inflexible holiday time cause many of their fellow officers to leave prisons for other jobs—and to become less effective at guarding violent criminals.

Twenty-eight years have come and gone since Lillie Clark started working for the Florida Department of Corrections. Today, she’s a captain in charge of staffing at the Florida State Prison in Starke.

“I wanna see my staff walk out the gate the same way they came in the gate that morning,” she says. “And us being shorthanded, at the bare minimum, trying to work 12-hour days and then calling people trying to get them to come in is hard to do.”

Clark says long hours can lead to officers losing awareness of their surroundings—which is particularly problematic inside a prison.

“There’s a lot of gang-related stuff going on inside the institutions: drug deals, conspiracy. And we’re supposed to be able to search and do our job on a daily basis, keep searches up and fight all the contraband and stop it from coming inside the facility. But they can make anything out of anything: homemade shanks and stuff, and you have to have constant searches,” she says.

Clark and other officers at the Capitol Tuesday pointed to recent prison incidents including the shooting of two inmates and assault of two guards at Columbia Correctional Institution—the same facility where an officer was stabbed to death two years ago. And Marion Correctional Institution Sgt. Thomas Johnson says the public never hears about the near-daily incidents he sees.

“I’ve been bitten by inmates. I’ve had urine and feces thrown at me by other inmates. So it’s happened to me personally,” he says. “I’ve had officers that were injured in restraining two inmates that were having a confrontation with each other.”

Back in February, Teamsters union spokeswoman Holly Van Horsten told a legislative panel the Department of Corrections is fighting a 16 percent yearly turnover rate among its officers.

“Everybody in law enforcement and in corrections, whether it be at the county level, the sheriffs’ office corrections, other state law enforcement officers, the municipal police departments—everybody makes more than our officers,” she testified.

The collective bargaining panel did not recommend the raise. But with the Legislature giving all other law enforcement and Fish and Wildlife officers a pay bump last year, Teamsters rep Les Cantrell says prison guards and probation officers are not giving up the fight. He says they also want their holiday policy changed. He says prisons currently offer a day off to be used within 120 days of the actual holiday they work—but facilities are often stretched so thin that the day off can never be scheduled.

“So in essence, these men and women are working on their holidays, keeping us safe, getting a benefit like every other state employee of a day off with pay, and they’re so short-staffed, they lose their benefit,” Cantrell says. “That’s not fair.”

Cantrell says the average corrections officer is 42 years old and is taking home less pay than he was eight years ago when pension contributions and insurance are factored in. The wage increase they’re seeking would cost the state $3 million.

In response to today’s press conference, Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews issued the following statement:

“Our correctional and probation officers put their lives on the line every day to keep Florida families safe, and nothing is more important to me than their safety and well-being.  That’s why our main priority continues to be securing more than $11 million in funding to hire more than 230 additional officers to enhance the safety and improve the work environment for all of our officers.”  

DOC spokeswoman Jessica Cary says the department also plans to offer bonuses to up to 35 percent of corrections officers scoring the highest on performance evaluations.