Simpson: ‘Damn right’ way to raise Florida corrections officer pay is by closing prisons

(The Center Square) – The Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) has transferred 3,500 inmates and 1,500 staff to other facilities after closing three prisons because of a shortage of corrections officers.

DOC Secretary Mark Inch is asking state lawmakers for $171 million to increase corrections officers’ starting salaries from $33,400 a year, or $16.70 per hour, to $41,600 annually, or $20 an hour, to fill 5,000 vacancies.

But while there’s bipartisan support for raising corrections officers’ salaries again – lawmakers did so in 2020 and authorized a transition from 12-hour to 8-hour shifts this year — Inch’s request has drawn a fusillade of reproach from Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

“We are not just going to write a bigger check because they think they need it. That is not going to happen. They’re going to have to do the right thing. We are not going to waste the taxpayers’ dollars,” Simpson told The News Service of Florida last week.

Simpson said the DOC can save money by closing up to four of its 50 prisons – many aging, some half-empty – and using the savings to pay for salary hikes. He said prisons cost about $40 million a year each on average to operate.

“Are you going to tell me you can’t shut four of those down, three of them down, four of them down, and generate $160 million a year of recurring revenue to pay down these expenses?” Simpson asked. “And the answer is, damn right you can. And when you do it, by the way, you will have better staffed prisons.”

The Senate president, running for state Agriculture Commissioner in 2024, has been a critic of the DOC’s resistance to replacing “old and dilapidated” prisons and inability to resolve chronic staffing shortages and high staff turnover rates.

“I think there’s a leadership crisis at the top,” said Simpson, without directly naming Inch, alleging DOC has a “lack of vision” and “myopia.”

The DOC is the state government’s largest department and nation’s third-largest state corrections system. It’s $2.9 billion budget is Florida’s third-largest annual recurring expenditure, behind only healthcare and education.

In March, the DOC was housing 83,000 inmates – down more than 15,000 in two years – and supervising 170,000 on probation at more than 140 sites, including 50 prisons, that employ 24,000, including 17,000 corrections officers.

During their 2021 session, Florida lawmakers pondered eliminating one, and up to four, prisons to slash about $140 million from DOC’s budget.

Inch resisted, calling the proposal “a shortsighted decision that could collapse the entire system,” which he said is under-staffed and unraveling after decades of under-funding and needs more, not less, investment.

The DOC ultimately prevailed. Lawmakers approved a $72-million increase in its budget that included $26.1 million to shorten guards’ shifts from 12 to 8.5-hours to alleviate DOC’s turnover rate; 42% of new employees leave after one year, 57% after two.

In late August, however, DOC announced 2,225 inmates and 1,200 staff at Baker and New River correctional institutions “will be temporarily reassigned to a neighboring institution” because they didn’t have enough corrections officers to adequately man shifts.

Cross City Correctional Institution – its 1,300 inmates, 375 correctional officers elsewhere since an August flood – was also temporality closed.

The DOC did not directly respond to Simpson’s criticism other than to reiterate “measures implemented to address staffing,” which include “continuing transitioning from 12-hour to 8.5-hour shifts,” $1,000 hiring bonuses, part-time positions and “consolidating work camps, annexes into main institutions.”

“The executive office of the governor is supportive of pay increases to ensure the Florida Department of Corrections can recruit and retain high-quality talent to serve Florida,” DOC said.

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