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Florida Corrections secretary seeks help from lawmakers to curb prison violence

Mark Inch said the root of the problem lies with low salaries and long shifts for prison guards.
Mark. S, Inch, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, at the State Capitol, May, 1, 2019. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Mark. S, Inch, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, at the State Capitol, May, 1, 2019. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 18, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — After a summer marked by highly publicized prison beatings, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch came to lawmakers Wednesday asking for funding help to stymie what he acknowledged as an “issue of culture” within his own department.

As part of a regular presentation to state lawmakers in preparation for the 2020 legislative session, Inch told lawmakers that years of funding shortfalls along with “detrimental decisions on staffing” have led to unsustainable turnover among guards, leading to a never-ending cycle of inexperience. Forty-two percent of correctional officers leave the department within their first year, he said.

Such turnover was attributed to low salaries for correctional officers as well as the state’s switch seven years ago to 12-hour shifts, which he says have left officers depressed, exhausted, and in some cases, with impaired judgement.

"When the Department went from 8- to 12-hour shifts ... inmate-on-inmate assaults increased by 67 percent," Inch said, noting that "introduction of contraband increased by 484 percent."

In making his budget pitch to the Senate Committee that oversees criminal justice funding, Inch asked for $29 million next year to start converting about one-third of the prisons back to 8 1/2 hour guard shifts, plus $60.6 million for modest officers' raises based on how long they've remained with the department.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who chairs the committee, said that the Legislature seriously needs to consider funding above and beyond what Inch requested because it’s not enough to fix the state’s prisons which have been in desperate need of additional funding for years.

"This is not a prison system that anybody can look you in the eye and tell you a person ... will be safe in the state's care," Brandes told reporters after the meeting.

Brandes also said he was extremely concerned about idleness among prisoners, highlighting the fact that even if the Legislature funded all of Inch’s requests for educational programming behind prison walls, only about 6 percent of all inmates would be in one of these programs.

Despite this dark outlook, Brandes said he’s seen a massive spike in interest from his fellow lawmakers in prisons, and many more of them have been visiting their local lockups in recent months. He said he will be filing bills again this year that failed in the 2019 session, including a proposal that would allow nonviolent prisoners with good behavior to be let out sooner, thus saving the state money that could be incorporated into more education and rehabilitation.

"If (the other lawmakers) are not terrified by the numbers that were presented today, I don't know what else is going to move them," he said.

After agency heads present their budget requests to lawmakers this fall, the Legislature will put together the state budget during the session, which officially starts in January.

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