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Report Finds Current Path of Florida Prison System “Unsustainable”

by David M. Reutter

 

Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) leaders have come before the state legislature repeatedly to warn that it is a system operating in crisis. In a presentation on November 15, 2023, by global consulting firm KPMG, which was selected in 2022 by the state Department of Management Services to present a 20-year DOC master plan, the prison agency’s “current path” was described in one word: “Unsustainable.”

Lawmakers responded to the crisis in recent years by raising pay for DOC guards to $45,760 annually as of July 2023. Despite that and signing bonuses, too, DOC continued to experience a 26.3% turnover rate. Yet many of those same politicians have rejected overtures for criminal justice reform as part of the solution.

“We have asked for too long for DOC to do too much with too little,” said the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice, Sen. Jennifer Bradley (R-Clay). “The salary increases have been helpful in changing the trajectory of our staffing challenges, but aging infrastructure, making sure that we have enough beds to meet increasing projections, remain big challenges.”

DOC currently cages about 85,000 prisoners, 14,000 of them serving life sentences, so its headcount is projected to mushroom past its 88,873-maximum capacity for safe operations sometime in 2024. Worse, KPMG’s Lawrence Spinetta told lawmakers, the projection for 2042 was between 107,000 to 123,000 prisoners.

Among the available options, “modernize” was first and most expensive. KPMG estimated an $11.9 billion price tag to build three new prisons and two hospitals while closing four older prisons. The plan would also reopen 8,294 beds across 16 prisons in the next four years and build 4,640 new beds at existing sites across 18 prisons by 2030.

Politicians were also presented another option, “manage.” KPMG said that it would cost $9 billion to build two new prisons and two new hospitals while closing three prisons. This plan would also add 8,294 beds in the next four years and build 4,640 beds at existing sites by 2030.

The last choice, called “mitigate,” would cost $6.3 billion to build one new prison and two hospitals, while otherwise adding the same 12,934 beds in the short-term that were presented in the first two options.

Sen. Ed Hopper (R-Pinellas) asked if federal authorities would intervene should politicians opt to maintain the status quo. In response, KPMG’s Bill Zizic said that what his team “witnessed in other states is a trend of class-action lawsuits regarding conditions of confinement, regarding all sorts of these various factors—provisions of health care.”

“The consequences can be dire and can be very expensive,” he added. “And I think the biggest one is it can actually erode your public safety system but also the confidence that the public has in the public safety system.”

An immediate crisis exists in DOC’s provision of medical care. “For instance, today there are 644 inmates who have advanced dementia, traumatic brain injuries, or other complex health issues that need specialized housing to supplement the outpatient care being provided today,” KPGM’s Julie Walburn said. At any given time, some 1,150 prisoners need hospital-level inpatient care, she said, but only 1,121 inpatient beds are available.

The report included a recommendation to spend $582 million to air condition Florida prisons. Sen. Jonathan Martin (R-Fort Myers) scoffed at the idea since “there’s literally been zero injuries, zero deaths in Florida, due to the lack of air conditioning.” He suggested paying guards more instead.

But Zizic pointed out that air conditioning is “very important from a working condition perspective” for staff retention, as well as safety and efficiency of prison operations.

 

Source: Florida Phoenix

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