Prison guard changes pitched for ‘system in crisis’

Florida News

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has been making the rounds in Tallahassee to pitch lawmakers on a plan to spend more than $26 million to shorten prison guards’ regular daily work shifts.

Inch sells the switch from 12-hour shifts to 8.5-hour shifts, already in effect at roughly a third of Florida’s state-run prisons, as a panacea for woes plaguing the state corrections system, which houses more than 70,000 inmates and employs more than 24,000 workers.

“It’s a system in crisis,” the prisons chief told a Senate budget panel last week.

Speaking earlier to a House panel, Inch called the shift-hour reduction “the lynchpin of our efforts to address our agency’s most significant challenges.”

The shift-hour reduction will help the department alleviate its high turnover rate, recruit new employees and ensure critical posts are manned, said Inch, a former head of the federal Bureau of Prisons and a retired U.S. Army major general.

But a review of the 17 prisons where the hourly shift changes have already been implemented shows that the reduction in the regular daily work schedule hasn’t necessarily given correctional officers more time to spend with their kids, work out at the gym or catch up with friends.

The 17 prisons spent nearly $3 million on overtime in December alone, with corrections workers racking up more than 83,000 hours of overtime, according to a monthly report the state corrections agency provided to House and Senate budget committees.

Lawmakers last year ordered the shift changes at 17 prisons as part of Florida’s roughly $92.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. The “pilot program” was included in budget fine print known as proviso language.

The shift changes are the subject of two active lawsuits filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents correctional officers. The union has fought against the shift reductions since they were first initiated in 2018 by former Gov. Rick Scott, who is now a U.S. senator.

Inch’s proposal this year to expand shift-hour reductions has added fuel to the battle between the correctional officers’ union and prison administrators.

“The morale is getting badder and badder, and the officers are getting madder and madder,” Jim Baiardi, president of the state corrections chapter of the PBA, told The News Service of Florida.

With an annual budget of more than $2.8 billion, Florida’s prison system is the third-largest in the country, according to the state agency.

But state-run prisons have been plagued by deficits, crumbling facilities and an aging — and hence more costly — inmate population.

To try to address the problems, Inch and state lawmakers have approved hiring bonuses, pay increases and retention bonuses for corrections officers who stay on the job for a year or two years. 

Despite the efforts, the agency spent more than $88 million on overtime during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, an increase of $8 million from the previous year, according to information provided by the Department of Corrections. 

Inch attributed the December overtime costs at the 17 facilities to an “initial spike” caused by the transition to three, 8.5-hour shifts per day, which was finalized in September.

As the prisons were converting to shorter shifts, the state also changed the way new employees are trained, Inch said in a telephone interview with The News Service of Florida.

“But I anticipate the cavalry is coming,” he said. “What we have to, have to, do to make the system work is we have to reduce the amount of first-year attrition.”

Inch said that last year, 42 percent of new employees left the state corrections department within their first year on the job, and 57 percent left by the end of the second year.

“This year it’s worse,” he said.

Pay raises that went into effect in October haven’t stalled the attrition rate, Inch acknowledged. Part of the blame lies with the compensation for correctional officers, whose base salary is $33,500, Inch tells lawmakers as he makes the rounds.

Offering higher pay, county sheriffs or city police departments often lure prison officers away after they’ve completed their training with the Department of Corrections.

But Inch said he believes “the initial indicators are very positive” that the shift-hour reductions will help with the agency’s employment issues.

“The real extended metrics are going to take months to play out, on violence rates, on attrition rates,” he told the News Service. “In any complex system, there’s always that effects lag.”

The union doesn’t agree, however. 

“If I was running the prison system, I would want the officers to be happy,” Baiardi said, adding that he’s heard from hundreds of officers who are angry about the proposed expansion of 8.5-hour shifts. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis released a proposed budget last month that called for spending  $26.1 million for the shift-hour change at an additional 17 prisons. Lawmakers will consider the proposal as they draw up a spending plan during the annual legislative session that starts March 2.

But Baiardi said the money would be better spent giving correctional officers what he called “hazard pay,” after nearly a year of COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the prison system. The state agency has had a staffing problem for two decades, he said.

The proposed shift changes have deepened the schism between prison workers and management, Baiardi said.

“You know how it’s like Christmas when you open up a present and it’s really great and you’re happy? Then it’s broke or it don’t fit? Yeah, that’s what he did. He took all the joy from them,” he said.

Inch’s agency is under scrutiny as lawmakers seek ways to trim state spending after the COVID-19 pandemic reduced expected state tax revenues. 

The Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee asked Inch to provide data about prison bed capacity and considerations for shutting down facilities.

But, appearing before the panel on Wednesday, Inch said the governor’s proposed budget doesn’t recommend any prison closures. The solution to the state’s “complex, open adaptive system” is multi-layered, Inch indicated.

“An inmate is not an inmate” and “a bed is not a bed,” said Inch, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biblical archaeology and a master’s degree in cultural geography.

“Here’s my problem today: trying to use numbers and discrete equations when the world of people is not an engineering problem,” he said.

The corrections agency is expecting an influx of up to 10,000 additional inmates this year, as a result of pending transfers from county jails and criminal cases that were postponed amid the pandemic.

“We do not have the available appropriate bed space or sufficient staffing at the appropriate facilities to receive the inmates from the hypothetically closed prison. We have run scenario after scenario. And the answer is consistently no,” he said.

But the soft-spoken corrections secretary’s at-times esoteric responses appeared to frustrate subcommittee members.

“How do we get from the big idea, dream world, build-a-whole-new-system-that’s-very-functional, versus balance the budget this year? Yeah, that’s the question on a time like this,” a skeptical Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, asked Inch.

Subcommittee Chairman Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, also pressed Inch for more concrete answers. The panel is “going to look at consolidation” of prisons, Perry emphasized.

“I’m not saying this is going to happen. I’m saying this is an exercise we’re going to go through,” Perry added. “I’m not saying we’re going to recommend or tell you where to close any prisons or tell you what to do in proviso, but we may.”

“In the near term, I can’t close a prison,” Inch said, eventually. “To do so would be a significant error in judgment, in my personal opinion. I can’t be any clearer than that.” 

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