TALLAHASSEE — Officials in rural areas of North Florida where two prisons have been temporarily shuttered are pleading with state leaders to ensure that the closures aren’t permanent, arguing that the institutions are a vital part of the local economy.
The Department of Corrections on Friday issued a news release announcing temporary closures of Baker Correctional Institution near Sanderson and New River Correctional Institution in Bradford County. A third prison in Dixie County, evacuated in early August after it flooded, also remains closed.
The closures in Baker and Bradford counties are attributed to staffing shortages, an issue that has plagued the state’s prison system for years.
But local officials said Tuesday they are worried that the temporary shutdowns could become permanent as the corrections agency struggles to hire and retain workers.
“People that leave Baker County to go to work, they spend a lot of their money before they return. So they’re buying their gas and their groceries and other things outside of Baker County,” Baker County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Darryl Register told The News Service of Florida. “If folks are not spending money here, we’re not benefiting.”
Department of Corrections officials, however, maintain that the closures ordered by Secretary Mark Inch are temporary.
“They’re definitely temporary right now, at this point,” agency spokesman Paul Walker said in a phone interview Tuesday.
But fear that the shutdowns might be permanent is rippling throughout rural regions where prisons are a major employer.
Register said Baker County commissioners were taken by surprise by last week’s announcement of the temporary closures, learning of the move in a story published by The Miami Herald. Being left in the dark compounded local officials’ concerns that the shutdowns could become permanent, he said.
“Of course we’re always concerned about jobs. In a rural, fiscally constrained county, we’re concerned about jobs,” Register said.
Discussions about consolidating and closing prisons have percolated for years. The latest debate on the issue happened this spring, when the Florida Senate included a plan to shutter and demolish four prisons in its state budget proposal.
Leaders in rural counties pushed back, saying prisons are economic bulwarks in financially strapped regions.
The Legislature eventually settled on a plan to allow the Department of Corrections to shut down a prison and use the money saved by the facility’s closure to provide bonuses to prison workers. Part of the final 2021-2022 budget said the state agency “may develop a comprehensive plan for the consolidation of a state operated correctional institution” and ordered the department to submit a written report about the plan to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls by Dec. 31.
On Tuesday, the Small County Coalition, which lobbies on issues involving rural areas, sent a letter to the three Republican state leaders expressing local officials’ concerns and noting that mothballing prisons would be devastating.
“Closing a prison in a small county will create job losses and cause instability disproportionately more than the closure of a facility in a larger community,” the letter said. “We would request that alternative plans be developed by adjusting prison populations and staff in prisons that are not located in fiscally constrained counties.”
Shedding institutions of inmates also could have a negative impact on county shares of federal and state funds because prisoners are included in counties’ census populations, the local leaders said.
Inch and Florida lawmakers have taken numerous steps to try to mitigate staff shortages in the corrections system, which houses about 80,000 inmates and employs 24,000 workers. The Legislature, for example, in 2019 lowered the age of eligible correction workers from 21 to 18.
The secretary is offering hiring bonuses of $1,000 at institutions with vacancy rates of 10 percent or more and an additional $1,000 to lure back certified workers who’ve left the agency. Starting pay for untrained corrections workers has been increased to $33,500 per year.
Inch is reducing prison guards’ regular daily work shifts from 12 hours to 8.5 hours, a plan he calls the lynchpin of his efforts to rescue a “system in crisis.” And his agency has closed numerous work camps throughout the state and put prison work crews on hiatus to offset staffing shortages.
But the piecemeal efforts won’t solve the agency’s perennial woes, according to James Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.
“The phrase I get a lot from the officers is they’re overworked and underpaid,” he told the News Service on Tuesday. “I hate to say this, but they (corrections officials) keep doing everything and they’re not solving the problem. The problem is they have to raise the pay immediately.”
The starting salary for correctional officers is less than $17 per hour, Bairdi said, while some convenience stores located near prisons are offering new workers $16 per hour.
Compensation for Florida corrections officers lags behind other law enforcement jobs, including positions in county jails, Bairdi said. He compared employment with the real-estate market that’s in the midst of a boom.
“It’s a sellers’ market. Well, it’s a workers’ market right now. They’re picking and choosing,” he said.
Prison workers — and inmates — also are grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. It’s unknown how many staff and prisoners have died of COVID-19 because state officials stopped releasing the data to the public this year.
The highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus has taken its toll on prison workers since flaring up in July, Baiardi said. Four correctional officers died during a 10-day period in August, he said.
The prison system can’t afford to wait until lawmakers reconvene in January for the 2022 legislative session to boost workers’ salaries, Baiardi said.
“If they don’t do something soon, we’re going to become the prison system on national news,” he said. “The inmates are smart enough to know the staff are working overtime every day. They’re smart enough to know that normally there’s five people in a dining hall and today it’s only three. They’re smart enough to know that, and sooner or later we’re going to have a problem.”