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  1. Opinion

Broken prison system puts Floridians at risk | Editorial

The Legislature must invest now for the sake of public safety.
Florida State Prison in Raiford.
Florida State Prison in Raiford.
Published Dec. 3, 2019
Updated Dec. 3, 2019

Florida’s prison system is a ticking time bomb, and “the status quo is not sustainable.” That dire warning is not from some outside reformer but the state official who runs Florida’s correctional system. Lawmakers need to heed these alarms and invest more heavily for the sake of public safety.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch is making his case to every prison warden and legislator he can reach. As Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reports, Inch has been distributing a book that chronicles one of the deadliest prison riots in American history. The lessons he draws from the New Mexico State Penitentiary riot in 1980 -- where prisoners tortured and slaughtered 33 inmates and took 12 corrections officers hostage, seriously injuring several of them -- are the latest clarion call for improving conditions for inmates and officers alike before a similar tragedy could happen here.

Florida’s crisis didn’t happen by accident or overnight, and it festered for years as lawmakers rejected repeated pleas to invest in safer facilities, better pay and conditions for corrections officers and educational and social services to prepare inmates to re-enter society.

As Klas details, years of budget cuts and legislative indifference have led to an understaffed, inexperienced crew of corrections officers in command of a penal system stripped of educational programs. They operate out of aging facilities with an increasingly hostile inmate population -- one sagging with substance abuse problems and increasingly entangled in gang hierarchy. Only 18 of the state’s 50 largest facilities have air conditioning. Brutality is on the rise. And thanks to funding shortfalls, nearly half the officers protecting America’s third-largest prison system have been there two years or less -- one predictable result of changing from 8-hour to 12-hour minimum shifts.

Lawmakers have ignored pleas for years to address officer turnover, reports of inmate abuse and other consequences of short-changing the system. In the last year, as Klas notes, expenses attributed to the 36 percent turnover rate cost $36,226 for each officer who started with the agency, more than the $30,050 starting salary for most newly hired guards. There are now more than 3,000 vacant positions in Florida prisons, and the overtime costs $77 million.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has acted, in part, on Inch’s appeal. The budget he proposed last month includes $96.4 million to improve prison operations, including $61 million for retention pay and $29 million to shift one-third of Florida prisons to an 8.5-hour workday. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who heads the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations subcommittee, has a better idea; he wants to end long shifts for all officers now. And the governor’s proposed spending on facility improvements ($9 million) and expanded educational programs ($5.4 million) comes nowhere close to meeting the actual needs.

Lawmakers have a choice. Florida can invest now in a prison environment that’s safer for inmates and guards alike and that prepares felons for productive lives once they are released, or it can pay later -- in officer overtime and attrition, in higher crime and felon recidivism rates and in outlays for abuse cases related to poor funding and staffing.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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