Florida Lowers Minimum Age for Prison Guards But Fails to End Staff Shortages
A new law that reduces the minimum age to be a Florida prison guard has not helped resolve “critically low” staffing levels. Effective July 1, 2019, the minimum age to be a guard was reduced from 19 to 18.
Florida has struggled for over a decade in retaining staff to oversee its more than 96,000 prisoners. In 2012, the Florida Department of Corrections went from 8-hour to 12-hour shifts in a move to reduce the number of guard positions. That move pushed many veteran career guards to retire, as they were vested in the Florida pension plan after ten years of service.
The aftermath has seen a revolving door for guards. Hiring guards and getting through the correctional training program to certify them is not a problem. Retaining them for even two years is the issue. For many, the low pay is a severe deterrent, especially when the same certification earns a higher wage at a local jail.
“Staffing at the department has reached critically low levels, and many of the staff currently employed are extremely inexperienced,” Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) officials wrote in a legislative budget request filed in September 2019. The lack of staff and inexperience often result in prisoners being locked in their dormitories and deprived of recreation or other programming opportunities. Inexperienced staff are regularly placed in acting supervisory positions to oversee, often alone, a dormitory or housing area.
To address the staffing issues, FDOC has proposed going back to 8-hour shifts. That would require hiring 292 new full-time guards at a cost of $29 million. FDOC says going back to three daily shifts would reduce staff fatigue, misconduct, and lower the cost of “unbudgeted overtime dollars.” Despite an annual budget of over $2 billion FDOC runs an annual deficit that it pays off with the following year’s budget.
While FDOC’s plan worked in the past, going back to it may be a tough task to complete. “To do that, you need to bring in more staff and keep them over the long run,” said Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.
FDOC is attempting to retain staff by offering hiring bonuses to guards, who start at $33,500 annually, and by offering tuition reimbursement programs. It also proposes to increase the pay by $1,500 to guards with two to four years’ experience and $4,000 to existing guards with five or more years’ experience.
Whether that will compel high school graduates to make a career in corrections remains to be seen. Puckett says his association supports the pay raises, but the “jury is still out” on the change in work hours. Reducing the prison population and closing facilities to better use existing staff is not something that appears to be up for consideration.