Florida prison officials acknowledged Monday that they had to fire warnings shots, shoot inmates with non-lethal pellets and put a North Florida prison on lockdown to prevent a riot last week.
The incident at Franklin Correctional Institution, which houses more than 1,300 male inmates near Carrabelle, lasted three days and was the most violent to occur at a prison since Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones took control over a year ago. It also comes as an independent audit commissioned by the Legislature has revealed that the agency is dangerously understaffed.
“Were we staffed to critical complement? Yes,” Jones told Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Greg Evers at a hearing Monday, referring to the loophole in the law that allows wardens to modify staffing levels to accommodate their needs. “Were we appropriately staffed? Sir, no.”
Staffing at the nation’s third-largest prison system is at near-crisis levels, according to a report done by CGL, an independent prison consulting firm in Sacramento.
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The $300,000 audit was added to the 2015-16 budget by Florida Legislature last year after reports by the Miami Herald and other news organizations detailed a rise in use-of-force incidents, inmate deaths and cover-ups of inmate abuse by agency staff.
“We saw some very serious deficiencies primarily as it relates to the staffing,” said Karl Becker, a consultant with CGL. “Those low staffing issues contribute to security issues and security concerns.”
For example, prison officials have established “mission critical mandatory staffing” levels at all facilities, but auditors found that for the first nine months last year mandatory positions were left unmanned 39,063 times for a total of 220,000 hours.
The lack of staff also resulted in inmates and visitors “not being carefully searched,” he said. “Because of the lack of searches, we saw significant contraband issues within the facilities.”
The auditors found that although the prison population in Florida has remained at about 100,000 since Gov. Rick Scott took office, the number of correctional officers has decreased by 1,000.
The findings prompted several members of the committee to raise questions about the commitment of the governor to address the mounting troubles at the state’s prison agency.
“For the first time we have objective data presented, which shows we have retention issues, we have issues with our physical plant and that we really need to take a serious look at our sentencing structure,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. “But it needs to be a joint effort between the executive and the legislative.”
Scott, who wants to spend $1 billion to cut taxes and offer $250 million in economic incentives to many out-of-state companies, has proposed hiring 472 new corrections officers. But he has refused to increase salaries at the agency, which at 12 percent below the national average are the “top concern” of corrections officers, the auditors said.
That contrasts with Jones, who has said that salary concerns are not the top priority, according to internal agency surveys.
“If you’re going to do tax cuts and you’re going to put $250 million into economic development, at some point in time there’s a finite amount of resources,” Bradley said.
To compound the staffing shortage, the turnover rate of new hires is about 50 percent with 32 percent of those hired leaving within two years of being trained on the job.
The result is that agency had to process about 23,000 applications last year to hire 3,000 new officers “just to keep their heads above water,” Becker said.
“The problem is, they have to have this intense effort just to stay where they’re at,” he told the committee.
Contributing to the dangerous situation is the agency policy of allowing the most experienced officers to advance to the less stressful jobs in work camps, and allow new hires to work with insufficient training, leaving the least experienced officers working in the highest risk facilities.
At Okeechobee Correctional Institution and Everglades Correctional Institution, for example, “most staff have less than a year of experience.”
The incident at Franklin flared after officers searched a gang member, Jones told the committee. The inmates became unruly and refused to return to their dorms, she said, prompting officials to fire a warning shot.
Prison officials put the facility in lockdown, but inmates resisted because “they were just tired” of being in lockdown, Jones said.
Jones said to gain control they used shotguns and grenade-style devices to eject non-lethal bean-like pellets “that could stun an individual and not hurt them.”
“That’s a security issue,” said Evers, R-Baker, chairman of the committee. He has warned for years that staff shortages and low employee morale at the agency have the agency on the “brink of serious security problems.”