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Florida lawmakers are gearing up to invest more in prisons amid staffing shortages

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Florida lawmakers are expected to invest more money in the state’s prisons to ease the burden of staffing shortages.

Pay raises for correctional officers are part of Republican legislative leaders' budget for next year. Ahead of the legislative session, they passed a salary increase that kicked in this month. And in November, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced $3,000 - $5,000 sign-on bonuses for correctional officers. As part of his budget proposal, he’s requesting funding to increase their salaries to $20 per hour or $41,600 annually.

The pay raise is in line with the Department of Corrections' request. “Bonuses are temporary. The goal moving forward is to put this in their salary, where it impacts them long-term,” said Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon, explaining that the bonuses helped hiring efforts in December. “That’s why we’re focused on that twenty-dollar-an-hour mark.”

The state has 5,849 correctional officer vacancies — almost a third of all positions. According to department records, that’s the highest it’s been in at least a decade. In 2010, there was a 9% vacancy rate. “To safely operate a prison system, we should be around a 3% vacancy rate: three,” Dixon said.

The vacancy rate has contributed to a host of problems for the state’s prisons, including increased overtime, facility closures, and transporting inmates at county jails. The pandemic has exacerbated these woes, with the staffing shortage sharply worsening over the last year and a half.

“The trend line looks pretty scary,” Dixon said. “We think we finally reached the top of that peak and not only stabilizing, but reaching a downward trend.”

In that time, Dixon explained the state has had to close 203 dorms, 28 work camps, five community release centers and two prisons. “We were able to provide relief to institutions across Florida as they managed to deal with the vacancy rates.”

To make up for the shortage, the correctional officers have had to work overtime — costing the state more than a hundred dollars. “From a fiscal standpoint, that’s not good,” Dixon said. “The wear-and-tear that it puts on our hardworking staff and the amount of overtime they have to work is not sustainable.”

Starting pay for correctional officers has been $33,500. In November, lawmakers approved bumping the starting salary to $38,750. Dixon says that helped the department hire more correctional officers in December.

“December was our best month yet where we almost came out even,” Dixon said. “In the panhandle — region one — we hired more staff than we lost for the first time in over a year.”

The starting pay raise took effect this month. Before that, Desantis announced bonuses “Just before Christmas, we offered retention bonuses and sign-on bonuses,” Dixon said.

“We're hearing that there is a lot a lot of staff didn't leave in December based on those actions,” Dixon said. “We understand that a lot more staff are basing their decision as to whether they stay or leave on the results of this request we're making through the legislative budget process.”

The department is requesting $142 million to increase starting pay to $20 an hour and increase salaries for veteran officers. “We are looking at recognizing those with tenure — at the two-year mark, the five-year mark and the eight-year mark, providing an additive at those milestones.”

Dixon says the department is also requesting 5 million dollars for an independent study to look at ways to improve the state’s prison system. Funding for that analysis is also part of DeSantis’ budget proposal.

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, Criminal Justice Committee co-chair, has spoken out frequently about the need to ease the burden of overflow the prison system is facing.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.