Help sought for ‘overworked and underpaid’ prison workers

TALLAHASSEE — A top corrections official offered a stark picture of FloridaÂ’s prison system Wednesday, warning that lawmakers must boost salaries of corrections workers to avert a looming disaster as the system grapples with high turnover rates, dangerously low staffing levels and fatigued employees.

Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon said the agency wants to increase prison officersÂ’ starting salaries from the current $33,400 a year — $16.70 per hour — to $41,600 a year, or $20 per hour, to address staffing issues that have prompted officials to temporarily shutter two prisons, close hundreds of prison dorms and suspend work squads throughout the state.

“HereÂ’s the bottom line. IÂ’ve been doing this for over 25 years in this system, in this state. The difference is, back then we had the given resources to do the job right,” Dixon, who began his career as a corrections officer, told the House Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee on Wednesday. “Today, this evening and tonight, many of those officers working in dormitories throughout our state, they have no one to back them up. TheyÂ’re alone and theyÂ’re at the mercy of other inmates — not staff, but other inmates — to come to the rescue should other inmates intend to cause them harm.”

Statewide, corrections facilities have an average job-vacancy rate of 28 percent, Dixon said, with some prisons experiencing rates up to 50 percent. “Adequately and safely staffing” prisons requires a vacancy rate of around 3 percent, he told the panel.

Dixon said the corrections agency is hiring an average of 200 employees a month but losing 400 workers, resulting in a “net loss of 200 staff every month.”

The department is seeking $171 million during the 2022 legislative session to increase starting salaries for correctional officers and another $9 million to hike pay for probation officers, according to a budget request filed last week.

The agency spent more than $103 million on overtime during the fiscal year that ended June 30, compared to about $35 million five years earlier. It houses about 80,000 inmates and has 24,418 authorized positions, including 18,354 security positions. More than 5,200 of the security positions are vacant, Dixon said.

The departmentÂ’s problems have been exacerbated by hiring in the service and tourism industries, as employers scramble to fill jobs amid an economic rebound following last yearÂ’s widespread shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting pay at prisons is comparable to wages offered by convenience stores and warehouse distribution centers, where the working conditions are not as challenging and the overtime hours are not as grueling.

“Here’s the reality. We hire someone at $16 an hour at a time when $15 or $18 is easy to come by,” Dixon told the House panel. “We ask them to work in this environment that’s inherently dangerous even under the best of circumstances. … We escalate that danger by working with less staff required to operate safely. Those staff we do have on duty are exhausted from working excessive overtime hours, and then we tell that staff member at the end of their shift they can’t go home to a kid’s birthday party or ballgame because they have to work another shift, and we do that three and four days a week. It’s just pretty clear why they’re leaving.”

Dixon attributed part of the high turnover rate to corrections officers who, after being trained by the state agency, quickly depart for more lucrative jobs with county sheriffsÂ’ offices or municipal police departments.

“Basically right now, we’re just the training ground for county jails and other law enforcement,” he said.

Members of the House panel expressed support for the beleaguered corrections department.

Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, said he recently visited a prison and urged his colleagues to do the same.

“I’ve been rocket-attacked in Afghanistan, so I know what it’s like to be scared. Walking into that prison was nothing short of scary. It was extremely eye-opening,” said Snyder, whose father, William, is the Martin County sheriff.

Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, appeared dismayed by the scenario depicted by Dixon.

“It’s appalling, it’s alarming and, quite frankly, as a policymaker and an appropriator, I’m embarrassed,” Roach said.

The union that represents corrections officers has argued for years that the state needs to increase wages.

“If correctional officers could be here, they would tell you two things: They are overworked and underpaid,” James Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told lawmakers.

Baiardi has suggested that lawmakers should address the issue in a special session before the regular legislative session begins on Jan. 11.

“They’re tired and they need help, and, unfortunately, I’m not sure if waiting for the session to come in is going to be enough time on this,” he said.

During the 2021 session, lawmakers signed off on a plan to shorten correctional officers’ hourly shifts, in what Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch called the “lynchpin” of the department’s efforts to address chronic staffing shortages.

But the department announced last month that it was temporarily closing Baker Correctional Institution in Baker County and New River Correctional Institution in Bradford County because of staffing shortages. Also, it announced it was keeping closed Cross City Correctional Institution, which had been evacuated earlier because of flooding in Dixie County.

Dixon said Wednesday that some prisons are so short-staffed that corrections officers are single-handedly staffing dorms, which house between 140 and 200 inmates, at night.

“That’s the case at this moment. That will be the case this evening when the inmates are most active, and that will be the case tonight when we’re all sleeping in our beds,” he said.

The prison system is also anticipating a major increase in the inmate population as courts begin clearing up cases put on hold due to the pandemic and prisons receive an uptick in transfers from county jails, Dixon said.

“The problem for all of us now is, now that we know the population is going to increase, we’re in a race to fill the staff vacancies at a faster pace than the population growth. If we don’t, there’s absolutely no way to open up dorms to accommodate those coming back into the system,” he said.

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