Audit says cuts making Florida prisons unsafe

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Dade Correctional Institution in Homestead.
Dade Correctional Institution in Homestead. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Florida’s prisons are infiltrated by drugs and tobacco, dependent on outdated security systems, run by inexperienced and overstretched staff, and are housing inmates who are staying longer — and returning just as frequently.

In short, the nation’s third-largest prison system runs a daily risk of becoming another headline, according to the findings of a comprehensive audit conducted by an independent firm hired at the direction of the Florida Legislature.

At the core of the critique is chronic understaffing and years of budget cuts that have left the agency starved for funding for its services.

“Until these workforce issues are addressed, challenges in maintaining a safe and secure system will continue,’’ concluded the report completed by CGL, a prison consulting firm in Sacramento, California.

Department spokesman McKinley Lewis said the agency is “currently reviewing” the report but would not elaborate on what its response will be. “We look forward to considering the implementation of policy recommendations that are not already in place,” he said.

The $300,000 funding for the report was tucked into the budget by lawmakers in June after attempts to create an independent oversight commission fell apart in the face of resistance from the governor and the department.

The researchers surveyed staff and inmates at 14 of Florida’s prisons and administrative headquarters over three months. They included 284 interviews of managers, corrections officers and program staff as well as staff focus groups to “identify morale issues and to capture the perceptions of management policies.”

Of the 45 recommendations for change, many are targeted at the Legislature, which has cut millions from the FDC budget since 2010 and has restored only a small fraction of it.

“They read my book on the prison system of the state of Florida,’’ said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, one of the department’s sharpest critics. “The Legislature has to accept the responsibility that we have been the problem for the Department of Corrections. ”

One key finding is that as Florida’s prison population has declined, inmates have been staying longer, yet the state’s crime rate has remained steady and the recidivism rate has remained the same.

“People are staying longer, but does that lead to any deviation from the national average for re-arrests?’’ asked Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “I think the answer is no.”

Brandes and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, both members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said the audit has raised new questions about the need for sentencing reform, especially for nonviolent offenders.

“Are we getting our money’s worth for the extra time spent in prison?’’ Bradley asked. He, Brandes and Evers said they want to have that discussion, as well as find a way to end the FDC’s staff retention woes.

“This data I think contributes to some of the issues we have been dealing with over the last 18 months with the department’’ — including reports of excessive use of force, inmate abuse and a rise in unnatural inmate deaths, Bradley said. “When you don’t have experienced personnel, mistakes get made.”

But finding the money for staffing, programming and improvements will be difficult. Gov. Rick Scott refused to include any new money in his recommended budget for salary increases for correctional staff and, Sen. Joe Negron, the chairman of the Senate appropriations committee that oversees the corrections budget, believes the “dramatic increase” in funding to the agency last year was enough.

“I’m content with the Legislature’s response to the Department of Corrections,” said Negron, R-Palm City, in September before the report was released. “I intend to shift my focus for the balance of this year to the courts, public defenders and state attorneys and other agencies in our jurisdiction.”

Meanwhile, the “Study of Operations of the Florida Department of Corrections,” is chock-full of data and details about turnover rates, contraband trends and security weaknesses.

In the past six years, turnover has increased by 50 percent at the department, 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.

Low salary levels are contributing to the staff turnover, the report concluded. Florida’s average salary for a corrections officer at FDC is $31,951, and uncertified 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, meaning employees who want to supplement their earnings must rack up large chunks of overtime. The department spent $18.2 million on overtime in 2014-15, amounting to an average increase of about $438.69 per paycheck, data show.

“California and Illinois provide starting salaries that are 61 percent higher than Florida’s,” the report said. “Texas, which has perhaps the most comparable correctional system to Florida among the top 10 systems, provides a starting salary that is 12 percent higher.”

Officers working for county jails in Florida are paid significantly higher, putting the state at “a severe competitive disadvantage in recruiting staff and retaining officers once they have been certified.”

The report notes that Florida has not provided a raise to corrections officers in eight years, but last year the Legislature did provide funding to hire additional staff.

Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project for Accountable Justice at Florida State University, said the report reaffirms the recommendations her group made to lawmakers last year, “particularly in ensuring the professionalism of correctional officers who must be sufficiently paid and trained.”

The report notes that the agency has “an efficient recruitment and hiring process,” but for every commendation in the report there was another list of problems. For example, the state is spending $900,000 this year to train staff who won’t stay on the job more than a year, the report found, and one in 10 officers have “yet to complete the required basic pre-service training.”

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,” auditors said. As a result, the facilities that were reviewed “provide minimal coverage of critical security and operational functions.”

That’s a big warning sign, Evers said.

“We are on the verge of seeing a dangerous situation get out of hand,’’ he said. “Inmates as well as corrections officers are being put in a situation where their life could be in jeopardy because of our zealousness in putting untrained people in positions overseeing inmates.”

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has ordered the 95 corrections officers who are under internal investigation — most of them for inappropriate use of force on inmates — to come to work in jobs with no inmate contact while being investigated, the report said. That's a practice that “can be toxic to facility operations and staff morale,” auditors said.

The staffing shortages and budget cuts also contribute to security weaknesses. Since 2006, there are nearly 2,000 fewer officers as a result of “significant budget reductions” that began in 2010-2011, leading to “minimal coverage of critical security and operational functions,” the auditors wrote.

The report found inadequate staffing and resources are dedicated to identifying gang activity. Perimeter fencing was “obsolete and faulty, thereby increasing the opportunity for a successful escape or penetration into the facility,” and many of the body alarms issued to staff were “were problematic and many were over 10 years old.”

The report recommended the department go tobacco-free, reducing the “secondary market for the trafficking of tobacco products” and the potential “for staff to violate policies and become complicit in the supply of contraband.” It urged legislators to invest in “modern scanning technology” to prevent employees from smuggling in drugs, cellphones and tobacco.

Compounding the problem is the shortage of education, vocational or substance abuse programming for inmates, which, the report found, “has a negative effect on both inmate success upon release and the safety and security of the facilities.”

Only 14 percent of the nearly 100,000 inmates get meaningful programming, and the programs that are planned are often cut short to compensate for routine security checks — which are time-consuming because of the staff shortages, the audit found.

“This leaves inmates with little opportunity to make productive use of their time and can lead to the corrosiveness of inmate idleness, where inmate frustration rises and their behavior turns negative,’’ the authors concluded.

Brodsky said that research shows a direct correlation to lack of programming and inmates who are released and are incarcerated again.

“The shocking other side of 14 percent means that 86 percent of Florida’s prisoners are not participating in core programming that has been proven to reduce recidivism,’’ she said.

The report also found that some of Jones’ recent initiatives -- to reduce use of force and improve the inmate classification system -- are incomplete or ineffective. It urged the department to end the “vestiges of a ‘boot camp’ type relationship between staff and inmates that had negative overtones’’ and raised questions about a new program aimed at changing the classification system to make sure inmates are properly assessed for their risk level and needs.

“Such changes will not have a significant impact on the overall costs and effectiveness of the correctional system until the sufficient programs are made available and the population is reduced,’’ the report concluded.

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com, @MaryEllenKlas and (850) 222-3095.

Coming Sunday: A Miami Herald I-Team investigation into corruption and sexual abuse in the largest women’s prison in the nation, Lowell Correctional.