Crime

After long drought, governor proposes Florida corrections officers get pay raise

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones claims conditions improving in Florida’s prisons

Julie Jones' short tenure as Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections has seen disturbances, death and change. In a one-on-one interview, Jones talks about charges against the system, and what she's doing to try to improve conditions.
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Julie Jones' short tenure as Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections has seen disturbances, death and change. In a one-on-one interview, Jones talks about charges against the system, and what she's doing to try to improve conditions.

After six years of refusing to give Florida corrections officers a pay raise, Gov. Rick Scott is including $38 million in his proposed budget to boost pay for officers in Florida’s prison system — one of the nation’s most violent and troubled.

The proposal, to be unveiled when Scott releases his budget on Tuesday, would provide raises to officers up to and including the rank of captain, said Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis on Friday.

The governor will also propose including $5 million to provide $1,000 signing bonuses for officers at prisons understaffed by at least 10 percent, and $2.5 million to increase pay for officers assigned to prisons with mental health units, Lewis said.

A Miami Herald I-Team investigation into corruption, sexual abuse and medical neglect at the largest women's prison in the nation, Lowell Correctional. Reporting by Julie K. Brown / jbrown@miamiherald.com.

The proposal comes after years of news reports in the Miami Herald about corruption and brutality in the prison system, including the case of Darren Rainey, an inmate in Dade Correctional Institution’s mental health unit who was locked in a searing shower by corrections officers until he collapsed and died after nearly two hours.

It must next receive the approval of state legislators, who in the past 10 years have increased corrections agency salaries only once, with a one-time bonus for the lowest paid officers.

“The governor believes in investments that allow the Florida Department of Corrections to better retain officers and have an experienced workforce,” Lewis said.

Although Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has repeatedly said that low salaries and poor working conditions have led to enormous turnover at the troubled agency, the governor last year refused to include a pay raise in his recommendation to lawmakers as he sought $1 billion in tax cuts. This year Scott is seeking $618 million in tax cuts.

Kimberly Schultz, president of Teamsters Local 2011, which has been lobbying legislators for years for a pay raise, commended the governor’s decision to recommend one this year.

“Local 2011 feels vindicated that the data we have provided and the work we are doing has not fallen on deaf ears and Secretary Jones continues to tout the data that I provided last year as a basis for pay increases,’’ she said. “...The statistics show that fair pay results in employee longevity, which maintains prison stability and safety for officers and inmates.”

John Rivera, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which now represents corrections officers, said it is time to “address the turnover rate and dismal pay. Retaining quality officers should be a priority for our state.”

A 2015 audit conducted by an independent firm hired by the Legislature found that between 2009 to 2015 turnover increased by 50 percent in state prisons, leaving half of all corrections officers with less than three years of experience. At five of the 10 largest Florida prisons, half of staff members have less than two years of work experience, the audit found.

Chronic understaffing was a contributing factor to the surge in contraband at prisons and an increase in gang-related violence and conflicts between inmates and staff, the report said.

Deaths of inmates in the prison system have risen from 275 in 2010 to 356 last year. That could be partly attributable to an aging inmate population.

In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, Jones said chronic understaffing and lack of experience are hurting the department.

Experienced officers who want to supplement their earnings often work excessive amounts of overtime. The department spent $18.2 million on overtime in 2014-15, amounting to an average increase of about $438.69 per paycheck, records show.

Under the governor’s plan, salaries for starting certified corrections officers would increase to $33,500 from $30,926 — a hike of 8.5 percent. Sergeants, lieutenants and captains would see a 10 percent pay increase.

The 2015 audit said Florida salaries were “substantially below salary levels in other large state correctional systems.”

Pay raises would also go to probation officers if the governor’s proposal is approved by lawmakers.

Miami Beach State Rep. David Richardson concluded the pricing scheme approved by the Florida Department of Corrections resulted in at least $16 million in overcharges over the past seven years and was either the result of massive government inepti

Miami Herald Staff Writer Julie Brown contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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