Slammed by staff shortages and ‘desperation,’ some Florida prisons to shutter

“This should come as a shock to nobody,” said Senate Criminal Justice Vice Chair Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
Mark. S, Inch, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, at the State Capitol, May, 1, 2019.
Mark. S, Inch, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, at the State Capitol, May, 1, 2019. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 27, 2021|Updated Aug. 27, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Department of Corrections will soon close multiple prisons in North Florida, a last-ditch effort to grapple with severe staff shortages.

Prison officials plan to shutter Baker Correctional Institution and New River Correctional Institution in the coming weeks, said Jim Baiardi, the president of the Corrections Chapter of the Police Benevolent Association. Cross City Correctional Institution, which has been closed due to flooding damage, will continue to be closed for an indeterminate amount of time.

Some work camps, including Gainesville Work Camp, and smaller prison annexes in other parts of the state may also close soon, Baiardi said, repeating what he said he was told by Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch.

The Department of Corrections confirmed the prison closures in a statement. The state agency said staff will not lose their job or rank and that it will make every effort to maintain inmates in their current custody status.

“It is going to help but it is going to have a minor impact,” Baiardi said. “This is not the solution to the crisis. This is a temporary band-aid. The number of officers moving is not going to solve the vacancy problem.”

Though the prison closures will have significant impacts on their local economies, the moves are not completely surprising.

“This should come as a shock to nobody because, essentially, we’ve been treated like the boy who cried wolf for years and, unfortunately, at this juncture, the wolf has come,” said Senate Criminal Justice Vice Chair Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “The challenge that we are seeing within the department is that there are vacant positions all over the place.”

Brandes said the decision to shutter prisons is one made out of “desperation to move staff.”

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, during a 2017 Suncoast Tiger Bay Club luncheon discussion.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, during a 2017 Suncoast Tiger Bay Club luncheon discussion. [ SHADD, DIRK | Tampa Bay Times ]

Since the COVID pandemic began, Florida’s prison population had shrunk by about 20,000 inmates, as of March this year. Criminal courts ground to a halt during the virus crisis, resulting in fewer sentences and fewer inmates sent to state-run facilities.

On top of that, the agency is struggling with its severe staffing crisis. Florida’s prison system currently has roughly 5,000 vacancies for correctional officers. The closure of the multiple North Florida prisons could relocate up to 1,200 correctional officers to nearby prisons, Baiardi said.

The news of the closures comes a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis met with Inch and 50 wardens from across the state during a visit to Suwannee Correctional Institution. He was there to discuss “future priorities” for the prison system, according to a tweet posted by the Department of Corrections.

Perhaps the most surprising closure is Cross City Correctional Institution, which was reopened in recent years and is one of the state’s newer compounds, though it has been dogged by flooding issues.

Aubrey Land, a former state prison inspector, described it as a “premier” facility. He suggested that Florida should look to its many parole-eligible inmates when attempting to address staffing shortages.

“There are a lot of inmates who have been in prison for a lot of years who are parole eligible, but they’re just sitting there waiting for a day to die in prison because they are not going to get to go home,” Land said. “I think the Department of Corrections needs to take a really good look at the parole issue.”

It’s unclear whether some of the prisons set to be closed might eventually reopen. Baiardi, the union president, said Secretary Inch told him they were “temporary closures out of desperation.”

Dixie County Commissioner Jody Stephenson, who lives in Cross City, told the Miami Herald that he had been hearing rumblings about the prison there closing, but was recently reassured by the warden that they were in the process of getting reopened. Stephenson said that while the main unit has had significant flooding issues, other parts of the complex were unaffected.

“Cross City, they are not going to be able to open it for a while because the damage is still there,” Baiardi said.

Later on Thursday, after the Times/Herald confirmed the prison closures, Stephenson warned: “Economically, that would cripple our area.”

The state Legislature in March floated the idea of shutting down four prisons by the end of the year, as state lawmakers crafted the state budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year that started July 1.

The proposal — which would have led to a $140 million funding reduction for the agency — received pushback from key lawmakers and Inch.

At the time, Inch said he was “disappointed” by the Legislature’s attempt to shut down prisons. He warned it would have a “significant” impact on the agency’s ability to carry out its mission and doing so could trigger the early release of inmates within six months as a result of prisons exceeding their lawful capacity.

“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 Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee Chairman Keith Perry in a letter sent March 3.

The same concern exists now.

“I think right now they are grasping for everything they can do to not do early releases, but they might still find themselves having to do them,” Brandes said.

State agency officials, however, issued a statement on Thursday that said the closures will not “impact our current population and will not result in the early release of inmates.”

Denise Rock, president of the Florida Cares inmate advocacy group, said the Cross City prison was evacuated last month. Prisoners were transferred with only the personal belongings they could fit into a pillowcase, after a bed roll and an extra uniform, she added.

Rock said the Department of Corrections is closing prisons because it can’t staff them, but countered that “it’s time our Legislature released the elderly and non-violent so that FDC can function properly.”

“We are concerned as prisons close [that] incarcerated people are going to be jammed in together without staff equipped to handle their needs,” Rock said.