Florida prisons head's hand-crafted message to legislators: Let me hire 734 officers

Published March 4, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Huddled over a conference table with three top aides, Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones got crafty Wednesday morning, assembling buttons and stickers that read "734" to distribute to legislators.

It was her low-budget, self-funded campaign to push for the additional personnel the agency needs to allow corrections officers to go from 12- to 8-hour shifts and increase prison safety.

Three critical audits found that an inexperienced and overstretched staff was creating a potentially dangerous work environment. Years of budget cuts had left the agency starved for funding for basic core services and, auditors found, a 17 percent turnover rate has left the department with inexperienced staff handling critical jobs.

Based on the recommendations of all three independent reviews, Jones concluded the agency should end the practice of having corrections officers work 12-hour shifts and should return to the 8-hour shift practice that the department employed until 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature attempted to save millions by cutting staff and lengthening shift times.

But reversing course comes with a cost: 734 additional staff and $36 million.

Jones calls it "an operational imperative, core critical need" and has been meeting with key legislators to make her pitch. It is a decidedly different argument than she was making last year, when lawmakers were debating whether to impose an oversight commission over her agency amid allegations of inmate abuse, cover-ups and an agency culture that wasn't policing itself.

Rather than apologize for the agency's shortcomings as a result of the budget cuts, Jones is now underscoring the long-term impact of the cuts on the agency operations. In a candid fact sheet she and her staff are distributing to lawmakers, they point out that: "While FDC has taken an aggressive approach to hiring additional staff, we are forced to hold positions vacant to pay for officer overtime costs."

Among the cuts: no money to pay overtime so the agency now must hold positions vacant to pay for officer overtime costs. Jones also argues that the 12-hour shifts have resulted in 900 more hours of sick leave a year and $25 million more in overtime costs.

Meanwhile, 12-hour shifts have done nothing to reduce the troubles plaguing the agency. According to the fact sheet, inmate-on-inmate assaults rose from 2,331 to 3,409 between 2012-13 and 2014-15, inmate-on-staff assaults increased from 749 to 793, and problems with drugs, tobacco and other contraband infiltrating the prisons have exploded.

Part of the problem is a result of previous budget decisions. Faced with a drop in revenues during the years of the Great Recession, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature authorized cuts of nearly $2 billion in the agency's budget over several years.

The cost of the button campaign "came out of our pocket to try to get the right information out," said Jones, who took over the agency in January 2015 and was not around when the deep budget cuts were made. "The Legislature understands the need; they are just trying to find the mechanism to make it work."

After a year of reorganizing some staff and firing others, Jones has won the Legislature's trust. But by the end of the day Thursday, she hadn't persuaded them to give her the money. A handful of senators had taken her buttons, and an effort was underway to find a compromise that would phase in the shift change over the next two years.

Legislators agree in principle with the idea of returning to eight-hour shifts, said Rep. Larry Metz, R-Umatilla, and chairman of the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the prison budget.

Budget negotiators agree the department is in dire need of staffing, he said, and they have already agreed to $12.2 million to hire 215 additional staff, "which is a legitimate need," but going to eight-hour shifts is a "financial issue."

Although the cost of hiring 734 corrections officers is $36 million, the department says that reducing hours will mean that 11,000 employees will work about 104 hours less a year and that would save $24.5 million, leaving a net increase of only $12.1 million for lawmakers to fund.

Metz doesn't agree with the agency's math. He fears that the moving to eight-hour shifts will exacerbate an already understaffed agency and, by agreeing to let the agency hire 734 new employees — on top of the staffing shortages it already faces — would be "forcing our hand" by allowing the agency to come back and ask for more money to fund staff legislators have approved but didn't fund.

"So we'd like to take one year at a time," he said.

Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, supports the FDC move to eight-hour shifts and has been working to help bring budget negotiators closer to the agency's position. He is suggesting that lawmakers authorize the new positions over two years because FDC "couldn't hire everyone they need by July 1, anyway."

There is also a cost to staff who are paid hourly: The average employee will work 104 fewer hours each year, and reducing the number of hours worked will result in a decrease in take-home pay.

Richardson said many of those employees could pick up overtime hours to augment their income, as many have done in the past. The proposed overtime budget for 2015-16 is expected to be about $38 million, he said, "far in excess of what they should need."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.