Florida Prisons Face Ongoing Staff Shortages Due to Low Pay And Long Hours
Inch sought to expand upon a pilot program approved in the $2.8 billion budget for FDC in 2020. Lawmakers added provisio language, or fine print, that instituted the program at 17 prisons. It reduces the work day for guards from 12 hour days to 8.5 hour days.
According to Inch, the shift-hour reduction will help FDC retain guards. In FY 2019-2020, 42% of new guards left FDC within their first year and 57% left by the end of their second year. “This year it’s worse,” Inch said.
An FDC report to the House and Senate budget committees noted that at the 17 pilot program prisons, FDC spent over $3 million for more than 83,000 hours of overtime. Inch attributed that to an “initial spike” from the transitions to three 8.5 hour shifts per day, which was finalized in December. He believes “the initial indicators are very positive” that the shift reductions will help end FDC’s employment issues.
The shift reduction is the subject of two active lawsuits filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents guards. It has fought the shift reductions initiated in 2018 by former Gov. Rick Scott, who is now a U.S. senator.
‘‘If I was running the prison system, I would want the officers to be happy,’’ said Jim Baiardi, president of the state corrections chapter of the PBA. “The morale is badder and badder, and the officers are getting madder and madder.”
Many veteran guards, however, did not like the change in 2012 from 8 hour shifts to 12 hour shifts. Hundreds of guards retired. As an FDC prisoner, this writer has watched staff shortages get progressively worse each year since that change.
The staff shortage problem does not hinge solely upon the length of the shift. For most guards, it comes down to pay. The starting pay for a guard is $33,500. FDC has been offering signing bonuses for those who take a job as a guard. It regularly places full page color ads in a state wide hunting and fishing magazine, and it keeps help wanted signs posted at the front of its prisons.
“It’s a system in crisis,” Inch told a Senate budget committee in February.
A huge problem is that guards do not stay in FDC’s employ for long. Once a new guard finishes FDC’s training academy, they are certified as law enforcement officers. Many are enticed to take jobs with local police agencies or county sheriffs. The pay is often $10,000 to $15,000 more annually. With better working conditions. For starters, none of the FDC’s prisons have air conditioning in cell blocks.
Lawmakers, however, have proposed to cut $141 million from FDC’s budget by consolidating four prisons. Whether prison closings are politically feasible is another matter. Many of Florida’s prisons are located in rural communities where there are few other jobs. There has been an outcry from those communities who would be losing their cash cow.
“I’m not saying this is going to happen. I’m saying this is an exercise we’re going to go through,” said Subcommittee Chairman Keith Perry. “I’m not saying we’re going to recommend or tell you where to close prisons or to tell you what to do in provisio, but we may.’’
FDC is expecting an influx of over 10,000 prisons due to court backlogs from the COVID-19 pandemic. “In the near term, I can’t close a prison,” Inch said. “To do so would be a significant error in judgment, in my personal opinion. I can’t be any clearer than that.”
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