Florida Prisons

Audit details ‘dangerous’ understaffing at Florida prisons

Joe Negron, Florida senator
Joe Negron, Florida senator

Florida’s prisons are so “chronically understaffed” for even the most basic daily routines that an emergency should be declared to keep corrections officers and inmates safe, an independent audit commissioned by the Florida Department of Corrections has concluded.

The lack of staff costs the state millions in overtime costs, encourages vacancies, falls below national standards and exposes Florida taxpayers to increased costs if a murder, riot or escape were to occur at any of the state prisons, the report by the National Institute of Corrections concludes.

The solution “will require a significant commitment of attention and resources and the fortitude to make tough decisions,” the report notes.

The department’s response: We know.

“Since January, the secretary has been saying this over and over again,” said McKinley Lewis, spokesman for the agency, noting that Corrections Secretary Julie Jones asked for and received $17.5 million to hire 300 additional employees.

Jones told legislative committees last week that she had received the report and that her budget includes a request for 273 more officers at a cost of $14 million, on top of the additional staff she received last year.

But after hiring 2,200 corrections officers in the past six months to work at the state’s 56 prisons, the agency lost another 1,400, leaving a net gain in the vicinity of 800, she told the committees. And after years of the state’s underfunding of the prison system, Jones said her priority this year is to make repairs on the many crumbling buildings, as well as hire new staff.

“Although we’ve hired a lot of new employees, we’ve just as quickly lost others to local law enforcement,” Jones told the House Judiciary Committee on Friday. “This isn’t a sustainable trend, but it is something we are working on and will continue to work on.”

Auditors with the National Institute of Corrections visited three locations and six different facilities at Apalachee, Wakulla and Jefferson Correctional Institutions in August and September and reviewed staffing documents across the state. They concluded that the agency was in violation of state rules that require it to declare a “staffing emergency” every time a prison is below the minimum level to remain safe for basic operations.

“Falling below Level I is an emergency and should theoretically be addressed as an emergency,” the report concluded. “However, current practice is that … the only additional action taken is to submit a weekly report rather than to curtail any activities.”

The report notes that the department defines “falling below Level 1 staffing as presenting a danger to the public, staff and inmates,” and documents show that between July 3, 2014 and June 3, 2015, staffing levels were reported to have fallen below Level 1 at least 21,986 times.

The report also notes that “unfavorable working conditions” contribute to the high turnover rate, with many recruits “dropping out” before they complete training.

The report outlined a series of recommendations, including a thorough review of the agency’s hiring and retention practices and urged it to discontinue its practice of 12-hour shifts. The change from eight-hour shifts that began in 2012 as a way to save money “does not in itself safe money or resources” because inadequate staffing requires the agency to rely on expensive overtime “in order to work properly,” the report said.

The staffing shortages also prompt prison wardens to “manipulate” staffing levels, “pull staff from critical posts” — such as housing and command centers — “to dangerous levels” and then lead them to hope “that serious incidents do not occur in these locations.”

Florida’s manipulation of staffing to justify overtime occurs “to a far greater extent than anywhere we have seen in the dozens of states in which we have reviewed staffing patterns throughout the country,” the report found.

“This chronic understaffing results in facilities falling below safe staffing levels on a daily basis, which in turn causes rampant overtime usage,” the report said. “It also causes supervisors to resort to creative scheduling, which is primarily manifested in the use of Special Assignments and Secondary Duties just to maintain safe staffing levels.”

The frequent turnover also has resulted in having 16 percent of all corrections officers considered new hires or trainees, exacerbating the level of inexperience and adding additional stress to more experienced employees, the report said.

After cutting the agency’s $2.2 billion budget by $500 million in the past seven years, key legislators were neither surprised nor alarmed by the report.

“The Department of Corrections was the victim of the great recession, and that agency was cut deep,” said Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who was in charge of the prisons budget in previous years. “They got the short straw, and it takes a long time to bring them back.”

“There is nothing surprising or unanticipated,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. He said he is “satisfied with the legislative response” to Jones’ call for staffing and is ready to move on.

“I intend to shift my focus for the balance of this year to the courts, public defenders, state attorneys and other agencies in our jurisdiction,” he told the Herald/Times.

Lewis, the agency spokesman, said the department is doing the best it can with what it has.

“The fact that we haven’t had any of those problems is a huge testament to what our officers do every day,” he said. “They do it understaffed and they maintain a secure institution and, thankfully, they maintain safety for themselves and for the inmates.”

Mary Ellen Klas is Tallahassee bureau chief of the Miami Herald. She can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

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