Guest Column
Florida should consolidate its prisons in a smart way | Column
The Senate president has some thoughts on how best to do this.
This is a walkway at the Blackwater River Correctional Facility. 
(Photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections)
This is a walkway at the Blackwater River Correctional Facility. (Photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections) [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published Oct. 7

For many years and myriad reasons, our local, state and federal governments have grappled with the challenges of criminal justice reform. From policing to sentencing to reentry — many goals are shared, yet solutions remain evasive. We all want safe communities where justice is administered fairly, petty criminals are rehabilitated and perpetrators of serious, violent crimes are kept out of our communities.

Senate President Wilton Simpson
Senate President Wilton Simpson [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

I hope we can continue to make progress, as we did in bipartisan fashion last session with the passage of legislation to codify public safety practices in law enforcement, which address interactions between people and police on the front end of the system. As important as those reforms are, we cannot ignore problems on the back end, which include how Florida manages approximately 80,000 convicted criminals in state custody and the corrections officers who ensure our safety as well as the safety and rehabilitation of prisoners paying their debt to society.

This year, as part of the state budget, we allowed the Department of Corrections the option to develop a comprehensive plan for prison consolidation to better align inmate populations with prison capacity. The idea was that with thousands of prison beds vacant and about 5,000 correctional officer positions open, a full and fully staffed prison is safer for all involved as opposed to a half empty, scantly staffed facility. Moreover, the savings gained from consolidation can be redirected to meaningful increases in correctional officer salaries to specifically address attrition and turnover.

Historical officer vacancy rates, proximity to other prisons, costs for ongoing maintenance and upkeep needs are supposed to be part of the consideration for which prisons to close, and which will remain open. Most of our prisons are clustered in groups around the state. We want to be strategic, so as not to negatively impact local economies and to keep the great corrections officers we have who live in communities near these clusters. We also don’t think Florida taxpayers should finance the refurbishment of the most dilapidated prisons in the system when we have so many vacant beds elsewhere.

The good news is that in the months since session ended, three prisons have indeed been shuttered and inmates relocated. The bad news is that these developments were not due to the strategic consolidation plan we had hoped for. Baker Correctional Institution and New River Correctional Institution were closed due to staffing issues, while Cross City Correctional Institution sustained significant flooding damage. So really, prison consolidation is happening, by default as prisons become understaffed and uninhabitable.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Seventeen of our 50 major state corrections facilities were built before 1980. Only 24% of the 623 housing units have air-conditioning, and the Department of Corrections estimates it will take more than $300 million to refurbish these aging facilities.

Inmate on inmate violence as well as inmate on staff violence has increased significantly over the last decade. Security threat groups — also called prison gangs — have increased from about 10 percent of the prison population to nearly 20 percent with more than 16,000 inmates associating with a gang. Sixty-six percent of prisoners are in need of general education development training, yet only 4 percent are enrolled in these free, rehabilitative programs.

Recruitment, retention and morale among our corrections officers is dismal, and recent modest investments in salary increases and recruitment efforts have proven futile. In fact, the yearly turnover rate has increased from 16.1% in fiscal year 12-13 to 29.4% in 19-20. First year attrition alone is at 46%, and well over 2,000 posts are vacant on a weekly basis.

As they work to anticipate future costs, consensus estimators representing the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis have concluded it is difficult to reconcile a judicial backlog (caused by COVID-19) of 25,198 felony cases exerting upward pressure on prison admissions with the fact that calendar year 2020 had 171,723 fewer arrests. Our best estimate is that Florida’s state-run prison system will reach 86,223 inmates by the end of fiscal year 2021-’22, and 93,414 by the end of ‘26-’27. So while we need to account for some growth, the department currently supervises more than 15,000 fewer inmates than it did two years ago. We certainly don’t need to keep paying for significant vacant beds.

As we look to the 2022 legislative session, no amount of money is going to fix these problems overnight. Smart, strategic consolidation is an idea supported by the Police Benevolent Association. It’s a policy and budget position we ought to give more serious consideration.

Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is president of the Florida Senate.