Photo via Florida Department of Corrections
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday called for a flurry of new spending to alleviate worker shortages in Florida’s correctional system, as he acknowledged “morale has been low” in prison facilities.
DeSantis said he wants to boost the Florida Department of Corrections’ current annual budget by $114 million. The additional funds would create 380 new positions, the largest increase for a state agency proposed by DeSantis for the upcoming fiscal year.
A large portion of the new positions would go toward a pair of initiatives prison officials say will help with "exceptionally high turnover rates" among correctional officers, including a $60 million retention-pay plan and a $29 million pilot program that would modify prison guards' shifts.
"The morale has been low ... and I think (Corrections Secretary Mark Inch) sees a problem, so we are working with him to try to address it," DeSantis told reporters during a press conference Monday morning, where the governor released his budget plan in advance of the 2020 legislative session that begins in January.
Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told The News Service of Florida on Monday he was heartened that the governor is focused on boosting correctional officers’ pay.
"We are pleased that the governor is moving forward with something to improve morale," said Puckett, whose union represents correctional officers.
The governor’s overall $2.8 billion corrections budget includes the agency’s retention-pay proposal to give officers a $1,500 pay increase after 2 years of service and a $2,500 increase after 5 years of work.
DeSantis is also backing a proposed pilot program that would move one-third of Florida’s prison workers from 12-hour shifts to 8.5-hour work days. To make the shift-hour change possible, prison officials say they would need to hire 292 new full-time correctional officers.
Puckett said the association sees the retention plan as a "good first step" toward boosting prison guards' pay, although the union would prefer an across-the-board salary increase.
When asked about the proposed change to the daily work hours, Puckett said the association still wants to negotiate the terms with prison officials.
Prison officials noted in a September budget proposal that making the shift modification would help reduce staff fatigue and misconduct. They also said the plan would lower the cost of "unbudgeted overtime dollars."
The wrangling over the work hours is part of an ongoing court dispute between the corrections department and the union, stemming from shift reductions initiated in 2018 by former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration.
The union’s lawyers have argued the change has "caused a reduction in wages and has had other negative effects on the officers," while prison officials maintain the shift-hour changes are necessary to save money and make prisons safer.
Last week, the DeSantis administration appealed a court decision that ordered state corrections officials to drop efforts to make the shift change without negotiating the switch with union representatives.
In addition to the retention-pay plan and shift-hour changes, the governor is also asking the Florida Legislature to provide $3 million for security equipment to catch illegal contraband coming into state prisons.
The governor’s nearly $3 billion proposed spending on corrections also includes $10.5 million to fund repairs to correctional facilities and $1.5 million to add 20 positions to the Department of Corrections inspector general's office to expedite handling of misconduct cases.
Inch recently told a legislative committee that his agency is not turning a blind eye to correctional officers' contributions to violence behind bars.
He told the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee in October that his agency is currently investigating the actions of three Lake Correctional Institution officers, who were caught on video pounding on an inmate.
"Those who need to be held accountable will be held accountable," Inch said.
DeSantis is also proposing $5.9 million to expand treatment spaces and purchase "therapeutic furniture," which his staff said will ensure "inmates with mental health issues receive adequate, prompt, and effective treatment."
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