Facility Closures Continue As Florida Prisons Face ‘Unprecedented’ Staff Shortage

With almost 30% of security staff positions vacant across Florida prisons, the corrections department continues to close sections of its facilities to mitigate its now past-critical staff shortage, officials recently said.

In late August, the Florida Department of Corrections announced the indefinite closure of three of its main prisons due to short staffing, a drastic measure that came amid closures of smaller work camps and dorms over the last year as the agency struggled with staffing, according to information provided by FDC officials last week.

Agency spokesperson Paul Walker said FDC had more than 5,000 correctional officer positions vacant at the end of August, about a third of the 18,000 allotted for full staffing, which officers and union representatives say is the result of long-standing low pay for the difficult job. The labor shortage was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jim Baiardi, the president of Florida’s corrections chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, said he’s never seen vacancies this high in his more than 30 years working at the agency or for its officers’ union.

“No matter what [FDC Secretary Mark Inch] does now, it’s Band-Aids to the problem,” Baiardi said. “This is unprecedented. …This is an emergency now.”

Trying to cope with the situation that seems to only be worsening, FDC officials have since October 2020 closed more than 21 work camps, typically smaller complexes attached to main prisons with lower security housing, as well as other smaller prison facilities, like road camps or annexes, Walker said.

He said the agency is planning to close at least five more in the near future due to staffing shortages, adding up to about 9,000 closed prison beds in the last year, according to maximum capacity data for the closed facilities from a 2019 correctional facilities report.

With the three main prisons closing — Cross City, Baker and New River correctional institutions, all in north Florida, as the Miami Herald first reported — and five community release centers Walker said officials plan to close, FDC will be down more than 12,000 total prison beds compared to months ago.

“The goal is to focus on our staff recruitment and retention,” said FDC spokesperson Michelle Glady. “No staff are losing their jobs, because we have a lot of vacancies.”

Glady said the agency has also closed a number of individual dorms but did not provide specifics. She emphasized that all closures are considered temporary but could not provide re-opening dates.

At least 33 state prisons had “severe” staffing shortages, meaning more than 10% of positions vacant, as of July, three more facilities than when Inch called the situation dire during a legislative hearing early this year.

While the agency did record a noticeable drop in prison population during the pandemic due to delayed court hearings, Baiardi said the recent closures are still a significant number for the nation’s third-largest prison system, which currently incarcerates more than 80,000 people.

He didn’t praise or criticize the recent closures but said he expects they could provide some short-term relief to staffing shortages through consolidation, though he said a more comprehensive solution is needed.

“There’s only one cure to this, and they have to immediately fix the pay problem,” Baiardi said. “The pot has been boiling and now it’s boiling over.”

The starting salary for an FDC officer is $33,500, below officer compensation at many otherstate law enforcement agencies or local jails. Walker said the agency is currently offering a $1,000 hiring bonus for employees hired to one of the 33 prisons facing more than 10% vacancies, as well as a $1,000 bonus for returning certified officers.

Baiardi said for the last few years the prison system has been short-staffed, but a myriad of issues have recently compounded the situation: COVID-19 absences and even deaths, other better-paying job opportunities and worsening conditions for those officers who remained and had to frequently work mandatory overtime and double shifts to make up for gaps.

“This shouldn’t be shocking news to anybody,” Baiardi said. “It’s time to take some kind of immediate action to solve this problem, and if they don’t, there’s going to be some serious consequences.”

One correctional officer who works at a Florida prison that historically hasn’t had staffing issues said it’s now routine that he goes to work knowing his shift will be significantly short-staffed.

The officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because officers are not allowed to speak directly with the media, said it’s frequent that more than a dozen people need to stay for the following shift for mandatory overtime, meaning they work more than 16 hours straight, sometimes multiple days in a week. He said often only one officer is staffing a dorm of more than 80 incarcerated people. In the last week, at least six officers at his prison have quit, he said.

“We’re just so overworked,” he said. “How much more can the department take before we can call in the national guard to run the compound?”

Denise Rock, the executive director of Florida Cares Charity which advocates for people in prison, said the recent closures have brought new anxiety to those with new housing assignments, especially for those moved from lower-security work camps or release centers into higher-security, more-restrictive main prisons.

But she said she’s hopeful the closures will improve staffing and conditions at the main prisons, for both incarcerated people and officers.

“We hope that by them doing that, it will make the major institutions run better again, not just run in the mediocrity it has been,” Rock said. In the last few weeks, she said she’s heard of people being transferred to a new dorm or prison, only to arrive without a bed.

She said another solution would be for the department to pare down its prison population, through available avenues like forgiving disciplinary infractions that have kept people from being released.

“How can we advance them out, rather them put them back?” Rock said.

While Baiardi said reducing the prison population would help, he can’t see that gaining the approval of Florida’s elected leaders, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose philosophy the union president described as “law and order” and “tough on crime.”

“This is part of the price of law and order,” Baiardi said. “If you’re going to incarcerate people, you have to put the proper money into the system.”

From www.orlandosentinel.com