House and Senate criminal justice panels on Wednesday once again received an education about the ongoing problems plaguing Florida’s prison system.
Ahead of the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers on the committees heard alarming statistics showing a skyrocketing rate of violence, contraband being smuggled into state prisons, and high turnover rates among correctional officers.
And the legislators were also reminded that it will take millions of dollars to fix the problems.
“At the end of the day we need a plan,” Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, told his colleagues during Wednesday's meeting. “This is going to take all of us working together and the full [Senate] Appropriations Committee as well.”
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch told the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee he is seeking roughly $90 million to fund two initiatives he believes will bolster staffing levels at state prisons.
“I do believe the status quo is unsustainable,” Inch told the House panel.
The pair of proposals includes a $60 million retention-pay plan for correctional officers and a $29 million pilot program that would convert one third of the state prisons’ 12-hour shifts to 8-hour work days.
Under the agency’s proposed retention-pay plan, correctional officers would get a $1,500 pay increase after 2 years of service and a $2,500 increase after 5 years of work.
The hourly shift changes, which would be more costly and are expected to be a contentious part of union negotiations, are more complicated, Inch admitted.
Inch said it is “undeniable” the department would benefit from making the switch but acknowledged that “some staff prefer 12-hour shifts because they have adjusted their life to those working patterns.”
For the pilot program to work, the state agency would need to hire roughly 300 new prison guards, according to a legislative budget proposal submitted by the agency.
Inch stressed the pilot program would only impact one-third of state prisons because his administration does not have the resources to revamp the entire system in a single year.
The plan, if it moves forward, would likely reduce the state agency’s overtime expenses.
Overtime costs have skyrocketed in the last decade, according to a presentation delivered Wednesday by Brandes.
Over the past decade, the agency has seen a $10 million increase in overtime expenses, with the cost totaling in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
After Inch pitched the initiatives and asked lawmakers for more money, House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, told committee members, when considering the requests, to consider the “economic slowdown” predicted by state economists.
The pair of proposals Inch is pushing comes in the wake of Gov. Ron DeSantis lowering the minimum age to work as correctional officers, another attempt to address the agency’s workforce shortage.
It remains to be seen if that policy change, authorized by the Legislature earlier this year, has helped the corrections system recruit more guards.
Inch blamed the low staffing levels for a dramatic increase in violent acts and contraband behind bars, but the corrections secretary also said he is not turning a blind eye to correctional officers’ contributions to violence.
He said his agency is currently investigating the recent actions of three Lake Correctional Institution officers, who were caught on video pounding on an inmate.
“Those who need to be held accountable will be held accountable,” Inch said.