Wardens say Fla. prisons are in terrible shape
Low salaries, frequent overtime shifts and poor working conditions have created a statewide epidemic
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville
State prison wardens pleaded with Florida senators Wednesday to adequately fund the Department of Corrections and help alleviate a variety of dire conditions in their facilities, from maintenance deficits to gang violence epidemics.
Low salaries, frequent overtime shifts and poor working conditions have created a statewide epidemic of correctional officer and prison staff turnover, wardens said.
That's led to high vacancy rates, including for security positions, leaving critical posts in the facilities unmanned. That dynamic contributes to rising levels of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence, the wardens said.
"The security staff are outnumbered by the inmates and the inmates know it," said Ann Casey, assistant warden at Polk Correctional Institution.
Wardens from Century, Madison, Union, Reception and Medical Center, Lowell, and Dade correctional institutions joined Casey to brief lawmakers on the eight-member Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.
In addition to staffing shortages and turnover, wardens spoke to spiking violence, a lack of programming and education, and facility and vehicle fleet maintenance issues. Chairman Senator Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, estimated that lawmakers haven't heard from prison wardens in at least 8 years.
The comments from wardens, specifically about violence and environmental conditions at the facilities, echoed many of the complaints inmates have submitted to the Times-Union in the last year and a half, especially following Hurricane Michael.
'TOUGHEST BEAT IN THE STATE'
Chief among the wardens' concerns were staffing issues. Wardens reported turnover rates — or the percentage of employees who leave in a given year — ranging from 30 to even 50 percent.
Most of those employees are leaving to go to nearby county jails with higher salaries, where they won't be asked to routinely work 12-hour shifts, wardens said. In Florida prisons, officers used to work 8-hour shifts but now work in 12-hour shifts. At the hearing, wardens expressed a preference for the former.
Michelle Glady, Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said officers are also asked to work 16-hour overtime shifts due to staffing shortages.
Joseph Edwards, warden at the RMC in Lake Butler, said those shifts, as well as officers regularly working on their days off, are "not conducive to a corrections environment."
"Staff are forced into a pressure cooker situation with stress and fatigue as they are mandated to work extended days on a consistent basis," Edwards said, adding that his officers often work two scheduled days off every 28 days.
John Kolodziej, warden at Century Correctional Institution, said that officers who work 12-hour shifts are often "turning right back around and working again without being rested enough," which causes illness and a tired workforce.
"Retention is an equal or bigger problem than recruiting," Kolodziej said, adding that staff turnover led to more than 2,300 instances of unmanned critical posts in the last year.
"These are posts that by our own policies are mandated to be filled," he added. "When that happens, supervision gets cut back and it's the root of the cause of every other problem we're having."
Beyond the pressure cooker situation, staff are tempted by county sheriff's office jobs that can pay about $10,000 or higher more in starting pay than the Department of Corrections.
Assistant Warden Casey, for example, said Polk County Sheriff's Office detention deputies start at around $46,000 plus a signing bonus.
Casey said the starting salary at Polk Correctional Institution is about $30,180, or 33,480 for certified correctional officers.
When seasoned officers leave for county jobs, wardens are left with young, less experienced officers to oversee offenders who have been incarcerated for decades.
The staff shortages don't just result in unmanned critical posts and inexperienced officers. They also lead to inmate idleness, with less teachers and programming, and also less officers available to escort inmates to the recreation yard, move them around the facility, or help family visitation go smoothly.
Edwards, the warden at RMC, said there are about 150 vacant security positions at his facility, resulting in an "unsafe environment for inmates and staff."
"Our correctional officers walk the toughest beat in the state," Edwards said.
Because prisons are struggling to maintain critical levels of staffing, Edwards said, programming for inmates has been forced to "take a back seat."
Warden Kolodziej, of Century Correctional, said inmate idleness "plays a role in almost every issue we have."
"I have first hand seen the positivity of programming in prison," he said. "Inmates recidivate at a lesser rate when they have completed an academic program."
Kolodziej said that getting inmates to recreation time or on work details helps tire them out and reduces violence.
"The old saying is that idle hands are the devil's workshop," he said. "And that's what we're experiencing."
Virtually every warden said they did not have enough, or any, certified teachers to get more inmates involved in educational or other programming.
Jose Colon, the warden at Dade Correctional Institution, said that only about 250 of the inmates at his facility are serving life sentences.
"The rest re-enter society and become our neighbors," Colon said. "If we can provide more programs, this will assist these men in re-entering society."
Casey, the Polk Correctional assistant warden, said her facility is "ripe for reform, and increasing education and staffing levels is a huge part of that."
"If you don't pay now, you're going to continue to pay on the back end," Casey warned lawmakers, citing increased recidivism rates and related costs.
The wardens all agreed that more educational and other programming, combined with staffing level increases, would reduce what has become an epidemic of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence. Violence, staff shortages and contraband are all intertwined issues, the wardens said.
STATE OF DISREPAIR: FACILITIES AND FLEET
Wardens also discussed the need to repair and replace the Department of Corrections aging facilities and vehicle fleets, citing inadequate maintenance budgets.
Casey, from Polk, had one of the newer facilities at 43-years-old. She said things are constantly breaking, from kitchen equipment to leaking roofs, and being added to backlogged to-do lists.
Roof damage has cordoned off dorms at multiple facilities. At Polk Correctional, a programming area has been vacant for four years because of unaddressed maintenance needs, Casey said.
Other facility needs, such as additional security cameras, are also going unaddressed, Casey added.
Inmates at various prisons have written the Times-Union to complain about widespread mold issues that they believe result from the leaking roofs, raising what they describe as health hazards and potentially making inmates and staff alike sick.
Tony Anderson, the warden at Union Correctional in Raiford, said leaking roofs are his biggest issue. Several buildings and dorms have had to be closed due to water damage, he said.
Like other wardens, Anderson also complained about the agency's vehicle fleet, saying he has many transport vehicles with more than 280,000 miles on them.
"We continue to put inmates and staff on the road, not only jeopardizing public safety but also staff and inmate safety," Anderson said.
Brandes, the subcommittee chairman, encouraged his fellow lawmakers to use their positions of power to tour the facilities themselves and talk to prison staff.
"I know they would love for you to visit their facilities, or just show up," Brandes said. "I've found the best way is to just show up and show them my ID and we take a walk. I've learned something every single time I've been at a facility."
©2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)