May 24, 2020
Florida's prisons
About 96,000 prisoners are serving time in facilities around the state, including at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford.

Photo: Cherie Diez/Tampa Bay Times

Florida's prisons
About 10% of prisoners in Florida are housed in privately run facilities.

Photo: Alamy

What you need to know about Florida's prisons

Amy Martinez | 2/26/2020

They’re violent, underfunded, understaffed and oriented almost completely toward punishment rather than rehabilitation.

Prisons are supposed to mete out punishment, rehabilitate prisoners and deter crime, but there’s growing concern that the state’s prison system isn’t up to the task after years of budgetary neglect. During the post-recessionary period of the early 2010s, the state slashed prison spending, leading to staffing shortages and cuts to inmate programming. Among the consequences: Inexperienced prison guards, inmate idleness, increased gang activity and a near-constant flow of contraband into prisoners’ hands. In addition to asking for more money for prisons, some are calling on the Legislature to significantly reduce the state’s prison population by scaling back hardline sentencing policies.

Here’s a look at the challenges facing Florida prisons and possible solutions:

Administration

The Florida Department of Corrections employs about 24,000 people and has an annual budget of more than $2 billion — less than 1% of the overall state budget. It costs the state about $22,000 a year for each inmate in custody.

  • Most corrections dollars go toward guards and health care costs at prisons. The state spends almost nothing on educating and rehabilitating inmates — education and other inmate programs account for only 3% of the state corrections budget.

Challenge: Leadership

In recent years, the corrections secretary job has been a revolving door for appointees. In January 2019, Mark Inch, a former Army two-star general, became the seventh person in 10 years to take over what is widely regarded as the toughest job in state government.

Inch, who came to Florida after a short stint as head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, has been a strong advocate for increasing prison funding. Last fall, while warning about the consequences of underfunded, understaffed state prisons, he gave legislators copies of “The Devil’s Butcher Shop,” a book chronicling a deadly 1980 prison riot in Santa Fe, N.M.

“The status quo cannot continue because that’s — pick your metaphor — the death spiral or the plane crashing into the side of a cliff or the tipping point,” Inch told a legislative panel.

Making His Case

In October, Corrections Secretary Mark Inch appeared before the state House Justice Subcommittee to ask for money to increase prison staffing and guard pay. An excerpt from his testimony:

“Between fiscal year 2007-08 and fiscal year 2018-19, more than 3,600 positions were eliminated from the department. The largest cuts came in FY 2013, when the department moved from an eight-hour to a 12-hour standard shift, along with a significant cut in program services positions. Since 2009-10, correctional officer turnover increased 150%, and officers with less than two years of experience increased by 67%. The median years of service for correctional officers is 2.2 years; 47% of correctional officers have less than two years of experience; and 28% have less than one year of experience.”

Where the Prisons Are

Florida’s prisons are clustered mostly in North Florida. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the area has the highest concentration of correctional jobs in the country. Prison guards and jailers account for roughly 56 of every 1,000 jobs in North Florida, compared to four per 1,000 jobs statewide.

Private corrections firms have operated facilities in Florida since 1995. Today, the state houses about 10% of its inmate population at seven facilities that are run by three private firms: Utah-based Management & Training, Tennessee-based CoreCivic and Boca Raton-based GEO. The state pays the three prison companies more than $170 million a year. No new privately owned facility has opened since 2010.

Administration

  • Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, built in 1913, is the state’s oldest prison.
  • Gadsden Correctional Facility in Quincy opened in 1995 as the state’s first privately operated prison.
  • Florida Women’s Reception Center in Ocala, built in 2012, is the state’s newest prison.

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