Corrections officers push back on governor’s prison plan

Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to hire almost 300 new corrections officers to staff the state’s prisons, but the state has had trouble just filling existing vacancies, much less hundreds of new positions.

Florida’s prison system is mired in a staffing crisis with nearly one in five corrections officers’ positions sitting vacant. To cover shifts, the Department of Corrections moved from eight- to 12-hour shifts about a decade ago. But it still regularly requires officers to work overtime.

“We have several institutions where the vacancy rate is above 20 percent, which is very dangerous for our correctional officers,” said Jim Baiardi with the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

As part of his proposed budget, the governor wants to allocate $29 million for a pilot program to move officers back to eight-hour shifts. He also wants to add incentive pay to retain existing employees.

But the proposal is getting pushback from officers and their union.

“It’s unpopular with about 80 percent of the officers,” Baiardi said.

Prisons are typically located in remote areas, so switching to eight-hour shifts could mean more travel time to and from work. The union has received almost 300 emails from officers against the switch.

“The days off rotate and every once in a while, they get a weekend off,” Baiardi said. “When they go to an eight-hour shift, that’s not going to happen.”

The union sued over the proposed change, contending that work hours are negotiable under the constitutionally protected collective bargaining agreement. It won, but the state appealed the ruling.

That appeal left a bad taste in the mouths of some officers, who said they feel like the Department of Corrections holds them to a high standard but ignores their constitutional rights when it’s convenient.

Baiardi believes the correct solution would be an across the board pay raise.

Under the governor’s plan, officers would get a $1,500 raise for staying two years, and $2,500 more if they stay five years. The starting salary is now at $33,500.