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What you need to know about Florida's prisons

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.

Challenge: Aging Infrastructure

The average age of Florida’s publicly run prisons is over 40. Corrections officials say years of underfunding have led to leaking roofs and a motor-vehicle fleet that’s mostly past its useful life. Nearly two-thirds of state prisons lack air-conditioning.

The Guards

Challenge: Turnover

The annual turnover rate among state prison guards is 36%. Nearly half have been on the job for fewer than two years, and about 3,000 guard positions are vacant, despite a recent effort to attract recruits. Last year, the state lowered the job’s minimum age requirement from 19 to 18.

Prison officials, citing “critically low” staffing levels, now hope to launch a $60-million retention pay plan and a $29-million pilot program to test 8½-hour work shifts in a third of state prisons. In 2012, state prisons moved to 12- hour shifts to offset staff reductions. Prison officials say the longer workdays have contributed to guard fatigue and burnout, but union officials support 12-hour shifts, saying they allow guards to work fewer days and spend less time and money on commuting.

Both sides agree that hiring and retaining guards is a major problem. Under the agency’s retention pay plan, subject to legislative approval, guards with two years of service would get a $1,500 pay increase, and those with five years would get $2,500.

“The starting salary for a corrections officer is $33,500. Let’s be honest, there’s not a lot of people who want to take a job where you’re risking your life for $33,500,” says Jimmy Baiardi, of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union representing prison guards.

One consequence of understaffing and low pay for prison guards is corruption. Last year, 103 state corrections employees were arrested on charges related to contraband, bribery or other misconduct while on the job, up from 81 staff arrests in the prior year.

The Inmates

Florida, the nation’s third-largest state, has the third-largest inmate population among the states, incarcerating around 96,000 people. Florida’s rate of incarceration — about 470 of every 100,000 residents — is well above the national average, however, and the 10th-highest in the U.S., according to a 2017 state-commissioned report by Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute, a non-profit research group.

  • The number of inmates has fallen — from 100,050 in 2014-15 to 95,626 in 2018-19 — but those in custody are staying longer, with the average length of stay rising by 20% from 35 months to 42 between 2014 and 2018.
  • Those incarcerated in Florida’s prisons are disproportionate: Male (93.1%) Black (47%) Sentenced for violent crimes (55%)
  • Two out of three inmates are between 25-34 (30%) and 35-49 (36%).

Challenge: Gang Activity

State officials say more prisoners are joining gangs to seek protection from violence or take advantage of staffing shortages. Between 2008 and 2018, prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff assaults increased 67% and 46%, respectively, while incidents of staff using force against prisoners rose 54%. Prison reform advocates warn that many felons are leaving prison more inclined to criminality than when they went in.

Challenge: Older Prisoners

The average age of Florida prisoners has increased from 32 in 1996 to over 40 today. Corrections officials predict that while the total prison population will flatten out or dip in the next few years, the number of elderly prisoners will grow from 23,412 in 2018 to 27,576 by 2024, an 18% increase. This means more money spent on inmate health care. According to Florida TaxWatch, health care for older prisoners costs between four and five times what it does for prisoners under 50.

Challenge: Education Programming

A third of Florida prisoners read below a sixth-grade level, and two-thirds lack a high school diploma, yet fewer prisoners are getting their GEDs. In 2018, roughly 1,200 state prisoners earned a high school diploma or the equivalent, down from more than 2,600 in 2010. Because of scarce resources, state prisons limit eligibility for adult basic education courses to prisoners who have less than three years left to serve; only those due to be released in five years or less can participate in vocational training.

Recidivism: One in four Florida prisoners is back in prison within three years of release — a number that has changed little over the past decade. Among state prisoners released in 2015, 24.7% returned to prison by the end of 2018. The three-year recidivism rate among those released in 2010 was 25.7%.

Issue: Sentencing

How Long?

From 1980 until its peak in 2010, Florida’s prison population climbed from about 21,000 to more than 102,000, a nearly 400% increase. The catalyst was a “get-tough-on-crime” movement that saw the virtual elimination of parole in Florida, new mandatory-minimum prison terms and a 1994 state law that requires prisoners to serve at least 85% of their sentences before being released.

Since 2010, the prison population has declined to about 96,000 amid record-low unemployment and a drop in crime. The population would have shrunk more if not for the fact that today’s prisoners tend to stay locked up longer: While prison admissions fell by 28% between 2007 and 2016, the average length of stay rose by 20% from 35 months to 42 months during the same period.

Some lawmakers want to cut Florida’s time-served requirement to 65% for non-violent offenders who demonstrate good behavior in prison. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, chair of the state Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, argues that Florida’s prison system is at a breaking point: Either the state dramatically increases funding to keep pace with prison costs, taking away from other budget priorities, or it scales back long prison sentences and lowers costs.

Reducing the threshold from 85% to 65%, as other states have done, would save an estimated $860 million over five years without jeopardizing public safety, he says. Nearly half of prisoners who were sentenced to prison in 2016 had no current or prior violent offenses, according to a 2017 state-commissioned report by the Crime and Justice Institute, a non-profit research group based in Boston.

“The longer you house low-level, non-violent offenders with hardened criminals, the more likely they are to pick up other bad habits,” Brandes says.

At least two groups — the state’s sheriffs and prosecutors associations — oppose a lower time-served threshold, saying it would reverse the downward trend in crime rates.

Mandatory Minimums

In response to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, the Legislature implemented a slew of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

The policies and their impact on communities with high incarceration rates have been deeply controversial. Criminal defense attorneys argue that mandatory minimums tie judges’ hands and prevent them from taking into account mitigating circumstances, such as a defendant’s suitability for treatment alternatives. Proponents argue that they eliminate the sympathy factor for defendants and make society safer.

In the wake of the opioid crisis, mandatory minimums have drawn renewed scrutiny. The James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank in Tallahassee, estimates that imprisoning low-level drug offenders costs Florida taxpayers more than $100 million a year. Researchers note that the vast majority of prisoners serving time for opioid trafficking are non-violent, first-time offenders.

“Prison is a horrible place that deeply traumatizes people and should be used as a last resort,” says state Sen. Jeff Brandes. “Sentences that are too long are just as wrong as sentences that are too short.”

  • Under Florida sentencing guidelines, someone arrested with seven to 14 grams of oxycodone faces a mandatory minimum of three years in prison. Possessing 14 to 25 grams of oxycodone has a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence, and possessing 25 to 100 grams has a mandatory minimum of 15 years.
  • More than 17,000 of 27,916 prisoners who entered the state prison system in 2018 had a substance-abuse problem, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

 

Read more in Florida Trend's March issue.
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