By John Haughey, The Center Square
Lawmakers want to close at least one of Florida’s 50 prisons but Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Mark Inch is warning consolidation and budget cuts “could collapse the entire system.”
“I’m not going to recommend closing a prison today, not in the near term,” Inch told the Senate Criminal & Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Feb. 17. “I do not want to make a shortsighted decision that could collapse the entire system.”
DOC is the state’s largest agency housing 83,000 inmates and supervising more than 170,000 on probation – the nation’s third-largest state corrections system – at more than 140 sites, including 50 prisons, that employ 24,000 Floridians, about 17,000 as corrections officers.
DOC’s current-year $2.7 billion budget is also the state’s third-largest expense behind healthcare and education. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Florida Leads FY22 budget request includes $2.9 billion for DOC, a $72-million increase.
DeSantis’ proposed spending plan includes $5 million for retention pay for correctional officers and $26.1 million to continue transitioning officers from 12 to 8.5-hour shifts.
In presentations before House and Senate panels, however, Inch has been confronted by lawmakers adamant about slashing DOC’s budget. Sens. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, and Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, said Inch must identify where cuts should be.
“We have a budget that we’re going to be within, we’re getting to spend X amount of money. Where are we going to spend it?” Perry said. “We have to have an answer at the end of the day.”
Despite a 49-year low in the state’s crime rate and a decline of 13,000 inmates from 96,000 housed by DOC in 2019, Inch said the over-crowded, under-staffed system is unraveling after decades of under-funding. Seventeen prisons are at least 40-years-old, seven are more than 50-years-old, and one – Union Correctional Institution – has housed inmates for more than a century, he said.
Inch said a significantly larger investment in staffing and maintenance – not cuts – is necessary to avoid “collapse.”
Inch said 41 of 50 prisons are operating at “emergency” staffing levels and thousands of new inmates will soon be sentenced as courts whittle into a pandemic-induced backlog of more than 30,000 felony cases.
Inch said the system is a powder keg and raised the specter of the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot that killed 33 inmates and seriously injured seven correctional officers happening in Florida.
“That could happen to us,” he said. “We’re two years away from passing the tipping point where that could happen to us if we continue to get better. If we get worse, we’re there fast. And that’s my caution to you.”
Inch called on lawmakers to approve DeSantis’ request for $26.1 million to shorten guards’ shifts from 12 to 8.5-hours, noting DOC is “a system in crisis.”
Lawmakers ordered the shift changes at one-third of prisons as a pilot program last year. That transition is underway but because of chronic staffing shortages, the staff at 17 prisons racked up 83,000 hours and $3 million in overtime pay in December, according to DOC.
Inch said the money will alleviate DOC’s turnover rate – 42 percent of new employees left after one year, 57 percent after two – recruit new employees and ensure safety.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has spearheaded the Legislature’s start-and-stop criminal justice reform effort for years, said there’s no surprise in Inch’s warning.
“What I see us facing is a pot of boiling water sitting on the stove,” Brandes said. “We can either choose to release the lid and let some of that water boil over or we can put a brick on it, sit on top of it and let it blow us apart.”