This story is a part of Untold Florida, a WUFT News series built from your questions.
The state budget the legislature passed this week could accomplish something Florida hasn’t seen in more than 10 years — a pay raise specifically for correctional officers.
While it’s technically true they got more money in 2013 along with every other state employee, prison guards’ base salaries have hardly kept pace with their peers’ earnings in other states. Matt Puckett, executive director of the Police Benevolent Association, helped to negotiate the raise with the state Department of Corrections.
“In 2004, 2005, and 2006, they strung together three years of raises,” Puckett said. His organization represents about 15,000 correctional officers. “And then they didn’t have a raise until 2013.”
Those 15,000 officers supervise about 97,000 inmates, according to the Department of Corrections. Former officers say that ratio, along with their lower salaries, proved inadequate compared with what they can make in other jobs. The raise that will take effect on Oct. 1 for all state correctional officers provides a guaranteed $2,500 for each officer. The Department of Corrections is also getting money to adjust minimum base salaries, some of which Puckett said will require that officers get more than a $2,500 raise to get to these levels:
• Correctional Officer: $33,500
• Correctional Officer Sergeant: $36,850
• Correctional Officer Lieutenant: $40,535
• Correctional Officer Captain: $44,589
All of this funding is included in the state’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget, now on the desk of Gov. Rick Scott, who is considering what he will veto for the coming year.
‘I’ve seen a lot of things’
Alfred Rodriguez Jr. worked for 15 years at Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont.
The first 10 years were great. “I would really focus on the re-entry to society… If I saw that a person genuinely wanted to make a change in their life, I would dedicate that little bit more effort into teaching them to make sure they wouldn’t come back into that space.”
The last five years there? Less so.
“When I left the Department of Corrections,” he said, “my son, who was 12 years old, gave me a hug.”
“Dad, now you can finally be happy and be safe,” Alfred III told his father through tears.
Whatever Rodriguez, 43, would have gotten paid under the forthcoming raises, it might not have been enough to offset the emotional damage he’s carrying. Though not formally diagnosed, he said he’s certain he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, having watched inmates cut themselves open, chop off their own body parts, and generally behave in ways that can’t be described on public radio.
“I’ve seen a lot of things,” he said.
Since leaving Lake Correctional a year ago, Rodriguez has gotten a job as a garbage truck driver. He said he makes about $1,000 more a month doing that than he did while helping to reform convicted felons, when after 15 years his pay stalled at around $17 an hour.
“And it’s a lot less stressful,” he said.
The struggle to recruit and retain
Whether or not an extra $2,500 would have kept former officers like Rodriguez in uniform, the money is going to help, according to Michael Riley, another former correctional officer. Riley, 44, worked more than a decade until 2013 at institutions up and down the state, from death row to Charlotte Correctional Institution near Fort Myers.
He knows how easy recruiting used to be.
“You talk to your neighbor. They have a son fixing to graduate high school and not going into the military. You’d say, ‘Hey, come work for the department. It’s a great job, and he can retire in 25 years.'”
“You have officers saying, ‘Don’t go work for the department… They don’t pay you very well,'” Riley said. Today, he works as a business agent with Teamsters 2011, a union also representing correctional officers.
Kimberly Schultz, president of Teamsters 2011, said the turnover problem has gotten bad, with employees staying nowhere near as long as Riley and Rodriguez did.
“They’re coming in for a year or two and then leaving,” she said.
Schultz’s organization pushed the state to complete a pay equity study showing the average salary at $31,951. And they start even lower:
“Ten years is a long time to go without a raise,” Schultz said.
The governor’s decision
The pay raise for the coming year isn’t a done deal.
Gov. Rick Scott has the chance to ax parts of the budget he doesn’t like. Although he also requested corrections salary bump money in his proposed budget, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman would not yet comment on the pending raise.
One way the money could get held up is if the governor vetoes the entire budget. That hasn’t happened since Lawton Chiles did it in 1992.