TALLAHASSEE — As Florida lawmakers start piecing together a state budget, Senate Republican leaders appear to be going against the state’s top prison official’s wishes in a budget battle that could shutter four state-run prisons and potentially trigger the early release of inmates.
The funding scuffle centers on a $140 million budget reduction that would require the Florida Department of Corrections to come up with a plan to shut down at least four state prisons by the end of the year, and demolish the facilities by June 2024.
The Legislature would have no input on the plan. Corrections officials would need to figure out how to reduce at least 6,000 prison beds through the closure of prisons and submit the plan to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls for approval.
In a statement, Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said he was “disappointed” by the Legislature’s initial budget proposal and warned it would have a “significant” impact on the agency’s ability to carry out its mission.
Inch said as much to Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee Chairman Keith Perry in a letter sent March 3, a couple of weeks before the Senate rolled out its first budget proposal.
“Due to staffing levels, the department does not have functional capacity in the system to absorb the inmate population of a closed facility, especially coupled with the significant number of offenders in county jails pending transfer to our system,” Inch wrote to Perry.
In the letter and in committee hearings earlier this month, Inch said he had already ordered the closure of more than a dozen dorms this year, but that closing down a prison would be a “significant error in judgment.”
If that were to happen, Inch warned, in six months the prison system may exceed its 99% lawful capacity, which could trigger the early release of inmates as part of the control and release administrative process laid out in state law.
“I can’t close a prison,” Inch told Perry. “I can’t be any clearer than that.”
But the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents correctional officers, is backing the Senate proposal to consolidate prisons, arguing that it will “improve the critical staffing problems” in the prison system.
“Correctional officers are being harmed by how woefully understaffed they are right now,” said Matt Puckett, the executive director of the Police Benevolent Association. “We really don’t need four facilities close by, we need one big facility that is fully staffed and that has AC.”
The union’s position is that corrections officials should temporarily close facilities, shift staff and move inmates to a nearby facility.
“If the inmate population reaches a point where more bed space is required, then the mothballed facility can come back online,” the union says.
Tension in the air
The funding scuffle had already spilled into a tension-filled budget hearing last week in the Senate, and was once again a point of contention on Wednesday when the Senate Appropriations Committee considered the chamber’s first budget draft.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes argued the proposed consolidation plans do not align with Inch’s vision. He also worried the plan does nothing to help with an ongoing underlying issue at the Department of Corrections: staffing shortages.
Since the start of the pandemic a year ago, Florida’s prison population has significantly declined to roughly 79,000 inmates, and prison admissions have dropped by 50 percent, Perry said. The inmate population is expected to tick up once the state’s court system resumes trials and starts to address a mounting backlog of cases.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo has worried a consolidated prison system could be overwhelmed by a sudden influx of inmates.
“How are we walking into a massive class-action lawsuit?” Pizzo said last week. “How is this not gross negligence?”
During Wednesday’s meeting, Perry addressed those concerns again.
“I do not believe these reductions will leave the criminal justice system unprepared when jury trials resume,” he said. “We don’t know how quickly this will occur and what level of resources will be needed to keep up with this demand.”
Brandes pressed Perry on staffing issues on Wednesday. He pointed out that about 40 correctional facilities in Florida are at”emergency or critical staffing levels” and that the state spends roughly $90 million in overtime every year as a result of years-long problems with retaining and recruiting correctional workers.
“We know that we need to increase correctional officers’ salaries, are there correctional officer salaries in this budget?” Brandes asked Perry during the meeting.
The Senate budget proposal does not include any salary increases, Perry said, but he said the chamber is “working on that” and making sure the Senate aligns on that issue with the House.
Brandes tried to amend the Senate budget to include $30 million, which he said would have provided $2,000 in bonuses to an estimated 8,000 correctional workers. The amendment failed, mainly because it included language — unrelated to salary increases — that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kelli Stargel took “great offense” to.
So, what’s on the table?
Both the Senate and the House budget proposals include language that mulls a consolidation plan for the state’s prison system.
The House proposal, however, is not as strict and sweeping as the Senate plan.
While the Senate requires a plan that could result in the demolition of at least four prisons, the House is giving corrections officials the option to submit a plan that would look at the closure of two state-run prisons.
The House plan also would allow the department to submit budget requests for salary increases, and would ask the department to include in its plan how cost savings from prison closures could lead to raises for correctional officers.
“I don’t know how far this goes — I think it’s worth pursuing,” Puckett said. “If it becomes a threat to the public or the correctional officers and the inmates, you know I think everybody would say, ‘OK, that’s not something we can go along with.’ "
Puckett, however, says pay raises and stabilizing staffing levels are the number one priorities for the union.
“If this [the consolidation plan] helps stabilize staffing, this is a much better approach to stabilizing the staffing” than converting prisons to shorter shifts, an initiative pushed by Inch to address overtime.
Inch has pushed to switch from 12-hour to 8.5-hour shifts at 17 prisons, despite objections from the union. The disputes have spilled into court battles, and Inch has asked the Legislature to continue funding that initiative.
• • •
Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news from the state’s legislative session. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.