Florida Department of Corrections’s troubled security operations were big talkers Wednesday in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.
DOC Secretary Julie L. Jones addressed staffing patterns, contraband reduction efforts and use-of-force incidents.
Major issues faced by the DOC are familiar to longtime observers, including continued staff attrition, overcrowding, increases in contraband, and a secretary confronting the unique paradox of running a 20th-century prison sector with 21st-century challenges.
“We’re working staff to death, and there’s too much overtime,” Jones said, referencing complaints registered via an internal survey of wardens during her Wednesday afternoon presentation.
Over 96,000 inmates are currently in the system, a $2.4 billion budget without a lot of “flexibility.”
Jones bemoaned budget cuts, noting that “over the past fifteen years, we’ve taken a loss … of $550 million,” caused by a “loss of inmate population” and “consolidations.”
There may be one positive augury, Jones said, referencing employee retention. A base salary increase kicked in October 13, and there are “hiring bonuses” at 15 “high-vacancy locations.”
“We have not made any strides in vacancies,” Jones said, adding that they “actually increased since the last report I gave to the Legislature.”
One reason: officers have been “very wary” regarding the pay raises showing up on paychecks, Jones said.
Staffing numbers, staff retention and overall safety, according to Jones, are among other issues.
One region — a historic crucible of the corrections industry in Florida — is especially shorthanded regarding staff. There are, Jones said, “unacceptably high rates of vacancies … especially in North Florida.”
Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, noted that “one of the number one priorities of this committee” was to fix these issues last Session.
“Has it just not worked? We gave the money,” Bean said, “and vacancies are up.”
“It’s too soon to tell,” Jones said, repeating that “once employees see [the raise] in the paycheck, it will make a difference.”
That difference will need to kick in soon. Many officers are lost in their first year, and many more after year two, Jones said.
“Some major facilities,” Jones said, have a “majority of officers with tenures less than one year.” And — also reflecting a short-timer mentality — the number of staff is “insufficient.”
Some facilities have supervisor-inmate ratios as high as 86 to 1, Jones said, a factor of a “lack of adequate workforce.”
Combine those ratios with twelve-hour shifts — a move made for the sake of efficiency — and the existential pressures created are obvious.
Turnover, Jones said, is up 109 percent since FY 08-09, and the cost of overtime is “staggering.”
“The financial impact to the state,” regarding retention issues, is “significant,” Jones said.
In FY 16-17, the cost was over $61 million, reflecting a “turnover rate of almost 25 percent.”
“They’re leaving the industry, and especially in our Region 2, which is Northeast Florida — the Iron Triangle area,” Jones lamented. “We put prisons in the 90s in the northern part of the state because that’s where the hiring was needed, and there are all kinds of options that are safer jobs — and better paying, frankly.
Staff is leaving, but prisons are full. Right now, system-wide capacity is “96.7 percent.” Some facilities exceed 100 percent capacity.
“We shift inmates around [to other facilities, which is allowed] … I’m not putting people on the floor … we’re hovering at the margins to house inmates correctly,” Jones said.
Staffing challenges have led to injuries to staff and inmates, and an increase in contraband, Jones said.
“Despite our best efforts to control these issues, they continue to grow,” Jones said.
Tobacco, K2, heroin, weapons and cellphones — these are the major issues, with throw overs and even drones handling delivery. The aforementioned staff shortages prevent searches happening as regularly as Jones would like.