Florida prisons a ‘time bomb,’ union delegate tells lawmakers

Franklin Correctional Institution has been the scene of recent, violent disturbances.
Franklin Correctional Institution has been the scene of recent, violent disturbances. Florida Department of Corrections

Calling Florida prisons “a ticking time bomb,” members of the union representing state corrections officers called on Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers on Wednesday to convene an emergency legislative session to address the state’s prison crisis.

One recent riot, several inmate uprisings, and widespread attacks on officers and inmates have alarmed members of Teamsters 2011, the union representing the state’s 2,000 corrections and probation officers.

“We recognize that this request is extraordinary, however under the present circumstances, it is necessary to prevent imminent harm and necessary for the safety of our officers,” wrote Kimberly Schultz, an elected delegate and candidate for president of the union, wrote to the governor, Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

The odds of lawmakers agreeing to a special session are slim. Several Orlando-based Democrats have spent the past two weeks trying to convene a special session on gun control reforms but were unsuccessful, falling 46 votes short — with lawmakers divided along party lines.

Gardiner had not yet seen Schultz’s letter, and the Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Crisafulli. Both lawmakers are Republicans.

Three recent outside audits of the department concluded that dangerous staffing levels leave the agency vulnerable to inmate disruptions at its 49 prisons. The agency loses about one-third of its corrections officers each year, according to the reports, and those who replace them are often young and inexperienced, with little or no training. Approximately one third of the agency’s corrections officers are trainees.

Officers are forced to work long hours of overtime, which cost taxpayers $18.2 million in 2014-15. At times, a single officer can be responsible for hundreds of inmates, and some guards are assigned on paper to cover multiple posts simultaneously — a practice known as “ghosting.”

Since January, there have been three uprisings at Franklin Correctional Institution in North Florida. Last month, inmates jumped a corrections officer and took over two dorms for several hours, causing nearly $100,000 in damage. The prisoners used makeshift tools to drill through a concrete and brick wall to try to escape. The riot ended several hours later; no one escaped and there were no serious injuries.

In April, a corrections officer was jumped and stabbed during a melee at Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City. Records show that across the system, radios have become inoperable, security devices — such as cameras and gate locks — broken and keys lost. The Herald found that during the first week of January alone, there were 38 serious security breaches, including a near riot that was quelled by a prison SWAT team.

Les Cantrell, the current head of Teamsters 2011, did not return a phone call seeking comment. But in the past, he has said the department’s difficult working conditions and low pay drive more officers to leave than the agency is able to replace.

Schultz is part of “Teamsters United,” the slate of candidates running to replace Cantrell and other union leaders. The election for the local board will be held in October.

“Assaults on corrections officers are on the rise and will only continue to get worse under the present state of affairs,” Schultz wrote to Scott.

FDC Secretary Julie Jones visited Franklin on Wednesday. Two dorms remain closed, but the staffing crisis has eased since the department relocated 300 inmates in the wake of the last disturbance, spokeswoman Michelle Glady said.

Jones took over the agency in January 2015 amid unprecedented inmate deaths and a record number of reports of use of force by corrections officers. Earlier this year, she asked legislators for $36 million to fund 734 new officer positions that she called “imperative” to improve staffing conditions and the “temperature” of facilities by reducing officer shifts from 12 hours to eight hours.

Legislators rejected Jones’ request and instead provided funding for 215 new positions The average salary for a state corrections officer is $31,951. Their last pay raise was in 2005.

Mary Ellen Klas of the Herald’s Tallahasee Bureau contributed to this report.