After a decade of decline, Florida prisons now desperate for staffing

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — “It keeps me up at night.”

That was the message from the head of Florida’s Department of Corrections Ricky Dixon in his testimony before the Florida Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, as he discussed a department that is facing a critical staffing crisis.

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“Our staff tonight will be out there by themselves with 100 to 200 inmates,” said Dixon. “We’ve been at this point for several months.”

Right now, the Department of Corrections is losing more officers each month than it is hiring, with the department estimating it has an officer vacancy rate of almost 32%.

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The staffing shortage can be traced to two factors: low pay and difficult work conditions. Florida’s corrections officers are among the lowest paid in the nation, with officers often working in rural, remote prisons that are not air conditioned.

Recently, Florida lowered the age for corrections officers to 18 and approved a pay increase. Still, the attrition has continued, putting the state in a position where an emergency release of inmates is not out of the question, although Dixon said the formula for a required release is complicated and the state is not there yet.

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However, the problems don’t stop there.

As state Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami Dade) pointed out, the staffing issues at the state level mean inmates are spending more time at county facilities, often at four times the cost per day.

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In response, lawmakers are calling for a comprehensive study to identify where the state could dedicate its resources to fix the problem, noting that a study was approved two years ago but vetoed by the governor.

“We have a misalignment of resources, we have a misalignment of policy, we have a misalignment of dollars and the Department of Corrections is on the brink,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-Pinellas).

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