Prisons Chief Offers Optimism about Embattled System
Florida’s embattled prison system is poised for a turnaround if lawmakers continue to fund staff increases and bonuses, Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon told a Senate panel on Tuesday.
Legislators in November approved a plan that steered more than $67 million toward pay raises and hiring bonuses for the prison workforce, as the agency for years has grappled with high employee turnover and dismal staff retention.
The money for the salary hikes and bonuses came from savings resulting from the closure of two prisons and the shuttering of dozens of dorms in facilities throughout the state. To make the increased wages permanent, Dixon is asking lawmakers to include $143 million in the state budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
The secretary told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that the raises --- which boosted the starting salary for correctional workers from $33,500 to $38,750 --- are having a positive impact on workers.
“I can stand here today and just tell you, I’ve never been more optimistic. I can feel it and see it in the system now. The morale is improving,” said Dixon, a 25-year veteran of the state corrections agency.
As an example, the agency in December only lost six more corrections workers than it hired.
“In previous months, we were losing anywhere from 150 to 200 a month, meaning that we lost that many more than we hired. But this number was our best month yet,” he said. “Anecdotally, we’re hearing that there is a lot of staff didn’t leave in December based on these actions that we’re taking --- the bonuses, the additional pay. And we understand that a lot more staff are basing their decision as to whether they stay or leave on the results of this (budget) request.”
Dixon also is seeking $5 million for a “prison modernization” study to “start informing us where we go decades out from now.”
“The solution to our corrections problem is not nearly as complicated as we often make it,” Dixon said, offering a list of three critical components of a successful prison system. “Properly staff prisons, reduce inmate idleness, incentivize cooperative behavior.”
The secretary’s presentation came as lawmakers start piecing together the annual state budget during the 60-day legislative session scheduled to wrap up March 11.
While Dixon portrayed a somewhat rosier picture of the prison system than has been conveyed over the past few years, the agency housing roughly 80,000 inmates remains in turmoil.
The corrections department spent $103 million on overtime for prison workers last year, the secretary said.
“So that’s bad news for a couple reasons. One, from a fiscal standpoint that’s not good, but also the wear and tear it puts on our hard-working staff and the amount of overtime they have to work is not sustainable,” Dixon said.
The vacancy rate for corrections officers is just under 32 percent statewide, with staff shortages at prisons in some pockets of Florida even higher, according to Dixon’s presentation. The ideal vacancy rate for prisons to run safely and provide opportunities for inmates to engage in education and training is 3 percent, Dixon said.
At some prisons, a single corrections officer oversees up to 200 prisoners, an issue he said keeps him up at night.
“It’s not safe. It’s not OK. And we’ve got to turn that around together,” he told the Senate panel. “But I’m encouraged, they’re encouraged … that the cavalry is on the way. … I’m convinced that if we do the things I mentioned today, starting with the pay, that we’ll see a turnaround.”
While the pay raises have offered hope for prison workers, “the conditions in the prisons for the officers are still rough. They’re not out of the woods yet,” James Baiardi, president of the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told The News Service of Florida after Tuesday’s meeting.
Corrections officers are continuing to work “a bunch of hours of overtime,” Baiardi said.
“They’re still working extended hours and on days off, and a lot of time away from their family. But this is the formula to make their life better,” he said, referring to the proposed $143 million for salary increases. “So they’re a little bit more optimistic about the future.”
Dixon also did not eliminate the possibility of closing additional prisons before the completion of the proposed study, which he estimated would take 18 months to complete. Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has pushed corrections officials to shutter prisons and consolidate facilities to achieve savings.
But corrections leaders in the past have balked at facility shutdowns --- until the staffing situation reached a tipping point last summer.
In August, the agency announced the temporary closures of New River Correctional Institution, which was built in 1926, and Baker Correctional Institution. The announcement also said the agency was keeping closed the Cross City Correctional Institution, which had been evacuated earlier because of flooding in Dixie County.
The worker crunch has also led to the mothballing of hundreds of dorms and dozens of work camps as well as the suspension of work squads, leaving prisoners behind bars with few opportunities to keep them occupied.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who for years has championed changes in the criminal justice system, said inmate idleness “is through the roof,” and educational opportunities for inmates are scarce at prisons he’s visited.
“Ultimately it’s a combination of policy and resources that’s going to drive the change in the Department of Corrections,” he said. “Without a combination of those, Florida will be back at (90,000), 100,000 inmates, and these numbers are not going to change. And we’re going to continue to essentially warehouse individuals and not actually correct behavior.”
Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, agreed the state needs a new approach toward corrections.
Pizzo, a former prosecutor, suggested a handful of new prisons that would house more inmates should be built. The new facilities could be sited in more densely populated regions than the rural counties where most facilities are now located, Pizzo argued.
“What we have doesn’t work, in my opinion. It’s completely inefficient,” Pizzo said. “My gut has told me for a while, under the auspices of a safe, clean, civilized environment for all parties concerned and to give anyone a chance once they’re released for the 30 percent of the population being released every year, what we have doesn’t work.”