by David M. Reutter
Increases in use-of-force incidents, violence and disturbances in Florida prisons have been blamed on understaffing, a problem ticking like a time bomb in the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC).
Guards employed by the FDOC, which is the third-largest prison system in the U.S., are among the lowest-paid in the nation. Poor wages result in increased staff turnover and difficulty recruiting more employees. Florida’s legislature sanctioned a study that found the FDOC was in need of 734 more guards to adequately staff state prisons; rather than fully address the issue, though, lawmakers funded only 215 of the vacancies.
“I have inexperienced officers supervising inexperienced officers – plus a 41 percent increase in the gang population,” said FDOC Secretary Julie Jones, who noted the average guard had less than two years’ experience.
Maria Kazouris, a labor attorney representing Florida prison guards, reported that understaffing at some facilities meant her clients work 48-hour weeks and are refused time off for vacation or illness.
“In the case of one officer, she has to spend the day in the hospital while her husband, who has cancer, gets chemo, so she is up 24 hours, between work and taking care of her husband,” Kazouris stated.
An FDOC audit in 2015 found the agency was “chronically understaffed,” and said addressing the problem would require “a significant commitment of attention and resources and the fortitude to make tough decisions.”
Auditors with the National Institute of Corrections also found the FDOC in violation of its own requirement to declare a “staffing emergency” when vacancies become so numerous they threaten safe operations. Between July 3, 2014 and June 3, 2015, the auditors counted almost 22,000 times that happened in FDOC facilities statewide.
Jones told state lawmakers at the time that her agency had hired an average of over 30 new guards a month for the previous six years. But attrition had resulted in a net gain of around 800 guards total – fewer than six for each FDOC prison.
Following the Great Recession of 2008, state lawmakers slashed over $500,000 from the prison system’s budget. The FDOC has since recovered that amount plus another $500,000, and its annual budget stands at $3.2 billion – which represents an average annual increase of just 2 percent over pre-recession levels.
With 16 percent of all FDOC guards considered new hires, those with more tenure have reported increased stress from frequent reassignments and overtime; further, auditors alleged that overtime was being “manipulated” to the detriment of prison safety.
“This chronic understaffing results in facilities falling below safe staffing levels on a daily basis, which in turn causes rampant overtime usage,” the audit 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.”
FDOC Secretary Jones, who was appointed in mid-2015, said the understaffing problem was exacerbated by an increase in prison gang activity and a rise in the number of mentally ill prisoners – up 157 percent since 2002, as more state mental health facilities have closed. Prisoners with mental health conditions “receive more disciplinary reports, more use of force, more cell extractions and more mental health emergencies,” she said.
“We are doing the best we can, but that certainly doesn’t give a mother with a child in the [prison] system great comfort,” Jones added.
That is especially true considering that not all instances of violence in FDOC facilities involve prisoner-on-prisoner assaults.
For example, two guards at the Lake Correctional Institution were charged in December 2016 with felony battery, culpable negligence and falsifying reports. The FDOC redacted many of the details from the arrest reports, but the Miami Herald obtained uncensored copies from the State Attorney’s office. They revealed that a handcuffed prisoner in the infirmary was restrained by a lieutenant and sergeant while a third guard punched the prisoner repeatedly in the face.
And in November 2017, a guard at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, Quintavia J. Walker, was charged with breaking a prisoner’s jaw and lying to investigators. Security video footage showed Walker grabbing the prisoner, who was handcuffed, and throwing him to the ground without justification. Walker was charged with battery and submitting inaccurate information related to a use-of-force report.
As previously reported in PLN, Florida’s prison system has been plagued by violence, excessive force and staff misconduct [see: PLN, Jan. 2018, p.61; Feb. 2016, p.1], as well as a record number of prisoner deaths. [See related article in this issue]. Use-of-force incidents – when guards employ physical force or chemical agents to subdue prisoners – topped 7,300 in the year ending June 30, 2017, the most since 2008. Further, prisoner homicides have risen over 100 percent in the past six years.
Understaffing and inexperience among guards have contributed to the increasing levels of violence. There were three riots at the Franklin Correctional Institution in 2016, as well as disturbances from September 9 to 13 at the Gulf Annex, Mayo and Jackson Correctional Institutions. The latter incidents were related to a call for protests against prison slave labor as part of the 45th anniversary of the infamous Attica riot. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.22].
“These riots will continue to increase in frequency,” said Kimberly Schultz, president of Teamsters Local 2011, the union that represented FDOC guards until they voted in November 2016 to switch to the Police Benevolent Association.
Understaffing disrupts normal prison operations; for instance, at shift change, guards report to their assigned posts only to be moved minutes later to another area due to staff vacancies. Another casualty of understaffing is recreation. The ability of prisoners to get out of their housing areas to burn off energy is essential to effective prison management and vital to prisoners’ mental and physical well-being. Absent the ability to exercise to relieve stress and anxiety, tensions rise and tempers flare in small, confined housing units.
“One of the big factors with an officer dealing with an inmate is a lack of experience,” Jones added, referring to the influx of newly-hired guards to fill vacant positions.
Experienced guards are able to see trouble when it’s coming, and are better able to diffuse potentially dangerous situations without resorting to force. As understaffing has increased in Florida state prisons, so have use-of-force incidents.
The legislature’s study found understaffing in the FDOC was a “ticking time bomb” that will result in “imminent harm” to both guards and prisoners if not addressed. Jones requested $40 million from lawmakers for fiscal year 2017-18 to combat staff attrition by offering signing bonuses and raising pay for supervisors and guards who work with mentally ill prisoners.
However, Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Joe Negron said he was “satisfied” with what legislators had already done to fund additional prison staffing, and shifted his focus to courts, public defenders and state attorneys.
In 2015, FDOC spokesman McKinley Lewis had said the absence of any larger problems – like a major riot – spoke to the competence of prison officials despite the understaffing.
“They do [the job of prison management] understaffed and they maintain a secure institution and, thankfully, they maintain safety for themselves and for inmates,” Lewis stated – before reports of the recent riots, disturbances, record number of prisoner deaths and FDOC guards being arrested for using excessive force.
Sources: Miami Herald, www.pnj.com, www.dc.state.fl.us
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