In an ambitious step to shore up Florida’s shaky prison system, the Department of Corrections announced Friday a push to recruit 4,000 new corrections officers over the next 15 months.
The move, at a time when officers routinely work 12-hour shifts, is part of an ongoing effort to clean up the state’s prisons, which have been in the spotlight for allegations of brutal treatment of inmates, who have died in record numbers over the past two years. In addition, smuggling of contraband — including illicit drugs, cigarettes and cellphones — by corrupt officers has fueled more violence, particularly among inmate gangs.
The announcement doesn’t mean the department is adding 4,000 new positions. It does mean prison officials are hoping to fill current vacancies and better prepare for future turnover, which is a major issue. Florida salaries are lower than those in comparable states.
The prison system has carried, on average, 1,300 open positions at any given time, said McKinley Lewis, Department of Corrections spokesman. The FDC hopes to reduce that number to zero.
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In some prisons in South Florida, thanks to soaring turnover, seven in 10 corrections officers have been employed less than two years, he said.
That turnover, coupled with inexperienced staff and low salaries, has led to serious staffing shortages and security breaches. In recent years, the agency also has come under fire for officers’ use of excessive force against prisoners.
In recent years, Lewis said, freshly hired recruits could wind up working in a prison the next day — under the supervision of an experienced officer. In the future, new recruits will receive 120 hours of training before setting foot in a prison compound, after which they will attend the corrections officer academy.
Until a corrections officer completes the academy, he or she can’t be certified.
An outside audit, commissioned by state lawmakers last year, concluded that state prisons “provide minimal coverage of critical security and operational functions.’’
The report, by CGL, a consulting firm in Sacramento, California, noted, for example, that the state was spending $900,000 to train corrections officers who won’t stay on the job more than a year.
The staffing shortage is so acute that the department routinely puts the least experienced officers in the most challenging posts and sends people who are in the middle of their training into positions “with limited or no supervision,” the audit said.
Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said that adding more corrections officers, while a good step, doesn’t solve the underlying problem behind the state’s prison crisis.
Of Florida’s 99,000 inmates, only 14 percent get meaningful training, and the programs that are offered are often cut short to accommodate routine security checks — which are more time-consuming because of staff shortages.
Simon said it would be more productive and economical to significantly reduce the number of prisoners and the length of time they are in prison through sentencing reforms. FDC is the third-largest prison system in the nation and, with a budget of $2.4 billion, is the state’s largest agency.
“At some point this state needs to get smarter about criminal justice and begin using state funds to begin treating many who are now sent to prison in a different and more effective way,’’Simon said.
The ACLU is among several human rights organizations that have pushed for a federal investigation into the abuse of inmates in Florida prisons.
Julie Jones, FDC’s secretary, has said the state could do more to reduce its prison population, but until that happens, hiring more officers and adequately training them is an immediate need.
“Properly staffing our institutions is critical to the safe and secure operations of our facilities,’’ Jones said in a statement.
Added Lewis, the spokesman: “The more officers we have in an institution, the better the institution will operate. It will reduce stress and the temperature of an institution so there will be less overtime, less fatigue and burnout.’’
In the recently completed 2016 legislative session, lawmakers authorized 215 new positions and $12.5 million for salaries, he said.
At some point this state needs to get smarter about criminal justice and begin using state funds to begin treating many who are now sent to prison in a different and more effective way.
Howard Simon, ACLU of Florida executive director
The CGL audit noted that low salary levels have contributed to staff turnover. Florida’s average salary for a corrections officer is $31,951, and noncertified trainees start at $28,008 — “substantially below salary levels in other large state correctional systems.”
Experienced officers don’t make that much more, the report said, and employees who want to supplement their earnings must currently rack up large chunks of overtime. The department spent $18.2 million on overtime in 2014-15.
The report stated that Florida has not provided a raise to corrections officers in eight years.
To apply to the Florida Department of Corrections, visit www.fldocjobs.com.