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Florida Senators Call Staffing Shortages In State Prisons A Crisis

Sen. Bill Montford,D-Tallahassee, is flanked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, and local school district officials as he unveils a testing overhaul bill (3/8/17).
The Florida Channel

Senate lawmakers say Florida’s prison system is in a crisis. That’s the consensus after a presentation by Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones. She said she’s having problems recruiting guards. Jones is pushing legislators for pay bumps.

Tallahassee Democrat Bill Montford says he’s concerned about corrections staff shortages because his district includes nine prisons. Seventeen percent of prison jobs in Northeast Florida are empty, the highest rate in the state.

Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said current prison staffers are young, inexperienced and tired. Corrections officers are working a lot of overtime, which is costing the state more money than fully staffing the system.

“So in summary, I’m not retaining experienced staff, which is important, relative Senator Montford to the safety and security of those facilities. In some places I can’t hire,” she said.

But Jones said staffing up the prisons isn’t in this year’s budget. It’s just the pay increases. Starting salary for corrections officers is about $30,900 a year. Jones wants to nudge it to $33,500. Starting pay for probation officers would increase to about $36,800. She also wants higher pay for those working in mental health units and hiring bonuses for prisons with high vacancy rates.

Several senators are expressing concerns about the short staffing in mental health units. Democratic Sen. Lauren Book says she visited the Lake Correctional Institution just north of Clermont. The prison has a large population of mentally ill inmates, which makes staff interactions more stressful because mentally ill inmates are more likely to act out.

“When we were there, you have to walk in between the yellow lines because if you don’t- commonly feces is thrown at them, all kinds of things,” she said.

There are 10 inpatient mental health facilities in the corrections system. Disability Rights Florida filed a lawsuit in 2015 alleging violations of disabled prisoner’s rights. The Justice Department joined the case against the department in January. Jones said they’re in mediation.

Senate Appropriation Chairman Jack Latvala said relief is on the way.

“The department made a strong case for an increase in wages for correctional officers and the Senate has heard that and I believe we will… We’re going to try to help them,” he said.

Jones said she hopes better pay will help her compete for talent with local companies and other governmental agencies. She said workers are leaving as companies pop up along the Interstate 10 corridor that pay more. Counties also steal correction officers for their jails by offering hiring bonuses. And that’s led to a 95 percent turnover of experienced correction and probation officers. Jones said 15 prisons have high vacancy rates.

If the Department of Corrections can get fully staffed, Jones wants to expand a pilot educational and vocational program. Becoming fully staffed could take a while, but previous recruitment efforts have helped bridge the gap.

Sarah Mueller is a journalist who has worked for media outlets in several states since 2010. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010 and worked as a print reporter covering local government and politics.