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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Prisons secretary pushes back, saying rejection of 734 new staff creates a 'safety issue'



The decision by House and Senate budget leaders to reject one of the top recommendations made by their auditors -- to allow the Florida Department of Corrections to move correctional officers from 12 to 8-hour shifts -- has prompted a pushback from the agency's secretary and left many questions unanswered. 

In a statement Saturday, Secretary Julie Jones said that to increase safety and security in the state's prisons, the agency must have the authority to hire 734 additional officers, noting that the 12-hour shift has so stressed operations that violent incidents involving inmates and staff have escalated, and contraband -- which is most commonly introduced by staff -- is at an all time high.

Our decision to transition back to 8-hour shifts is one based in data and research, as well as in the recommendations of three separate and independent audits,'' Jones said. "We strongly believe that our request for 734 additional FTE is an operational imperative that will increase both safety and security in our institutions."

Jones also argues that the money for the additional 734 officers is already in the Legislature's proposed budget -- allocated as 215 new officers as well as overtime -- but the agency just needs authority to hire them.

But the request was rejected late Friday by budget chairmen Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. They instead agreed to fund only 215 new officers and refused to authorize the switch from 12-hour to 8-hour shifts. Lee said the policy was recommended by legislative staff. Also rejected was the $34 million the agency may need to finance a temporary health care contract with Centurion Health Care. Legislators financed only $15 million in additional health care money for this year. 

"We put a lot of money into Department of Corrections -- about $45 million of new money,'' Lee told reporters late Friday. "Our staff felt that the department pretty much had its hands full dealing with the health care issues; that it needed to deal with and that. This was probably more than they could swallow at the current time, so we kind of took an incremental approach." He also noted that the agency has "a lot of open positions that can be filled" and "they have their plate full and were not going to be able to implement that program in the current year." 

Jones has argued in meetings with legislators that the agency is caught in a Catch-22 because of previous funding decisions made by the Legislature. Last year, the Legislature authorized only about $2 million in overtime funds in the 2015-16 budget. The overtime costs, however, have soared to about $24 million because of the staff shortage. 

As the Herald/Times has chronicled, the department's budget was cut by about $2 billion by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott, during the governor's first five years in office during the recession. That forced the department to shift funds from personnel to pay for building repairs, and to hold positions vacant to pay for overtime just to keep staff at a minimum. One corrections officer told a key Senate committee this year that the agency's staffing situation now is "a ticking time bomb" 

Jones argues the additional 734 positions are needed to reduce overtime, thereby freeing up the money now held in reserve by leaving positions unfilled. 

Rep. Larry Metz, R-Umatilla, the chairman of the House budget subcommittee on criminal justice, told the Herald/Times he could support authorizing the positions over two years, a compromise Jones said she offered to ease lawmaker's concerns. But Lee and Corcoran rejected that. 

"Our strategy was to have the Legislature authorize the 734 positions, immediately releasing 361 for the Department to recruit and hire in the first year, and placing the remaining 373 positions in reserve,'' Jones explained late Friday. "Having hired the 361 additional staff in the first year, and reported our success back to the Legislature, phase two would begin and the remaining 373 positions would be released from the reserve to complete the hiring process."

She added, she thought they had a deal. "We believed that we had consensus in this compromise,'' she said. 

So here are some of our questions: Why did Lee and Corcoran reject the compromise? Why did they reject the recommendation from the auditors whom they hired last year for $300,000 -- as well as two other independent audits? Will staff be made available to explain how they reached this decision? Last session, lawmakers allocated more than $60 million in new money to the agency to get it stabilized, do they have evidence to show that was "more than they can swallow?"

Jones indicated Saturday she is not ready to give up on the issue.

"The department’s request to implement 8-hour shifts is an operational imperative,'' she said. "This is an inmate and officer safety issue and something that the agency will continue to fight for this session.”

Here the statement from Secretary Jones:

 “Each and every day, more than 16,000 correctional officers put their lives on the line to keep Florida’s institutions and communities safe. Our decision to transition back to 8-hour shifts is one based in data and research, as well as in the recommendations of three separate and independent audits. We strongly believe that our request for 734 additional FTE is an operational imperative that will increase both safety and security in our institutions. Since the implementation of 12-hour shifts the Department has observed significant increases in several areas that have contributed to increased risk within our facilities.

*Sick leave hours taken by officers have climbed by more than 900 hours a year even as the Department took significant cuts in FTE.

*Staff overtime has risen dramatically from $11m to more than $36m.

*Referrals to the Employee Assistance Program for staff have increased from 1,096 to nearly 1,500.

*The occurrence of violent incidents has increased since the 12-hour shift implementation. Inmate-on-inmate assaults rose from 2,331 to 3,409. Similarly, inmate-on-staff assaults rose from 749 to 793.

*Contraband recovery has hit record highs, jumping from 8,012 items recovered to more than 10,300 items recovered.

The Department has spent the last year implementing new policy and making needed improvements to our infrastructure. Centralization of staff, process improvement and budget realignment has made a dramatic difference in the Department’s ability to operate efficiently at all levels.

While there has been concern over the Department’s vacancies, we believe that our request for 734 additional positions is a calculated resolution to this issue. With the return to 8-hour shifts, the Department will reduce overtime and fill positions we’ve held vacant to feed our current overtime expenses.

As we move through the final stages of our state’s budget process, I hope that our lawmakers recognize the progress the Department has made since their investment last year. I ask that our leaders place their trust in our agency and build upon the good work that has been accomplished since last session.”

[Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2016 7:48pm]


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