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Prison staffing problems continue

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As Florida prison officials struggle to recruit and retain correctional officers across the state, new information shows the problem has gotten worse.

When 2020 started, Florida prisons had 2,305 vacant correctional officer positions, a 16 percent increase from the same time last year, according to data for the Florida Department of Corrections.

Prison officials have been trying to alleviate the worker shortage for years. The latest effort came last spring when lawmakers lowered the state’s minimum age to work as a prison guard from 19 to 18. Six months after Gov. Ron DeSantis approved the change in the age requirement, the corrections department had been able to hire 87 correctional officers who were 18 years old.

Prison officials said in a statement Thursday that as the summer approaches, they expect more graduating high-school seniors to “take advantage of this opportunity to begin a fulfilling career in public service.”

Heading into the 2020 legislative session, Corrections Secretary Mark Inch and DeSantis have asked the Legislature to approve two initiatives to help the department recruit and retain prison guards.

“At the forefront of our priorities is an agency-wide effort to recruit and retain correctional officers statewide,” the agency said Thursday.

The proposals, which would cost close to $90 million, would move one-third of Florida’s correctional officers from 12-hour shifts to 8.5-hour workdays and give pay increases of $1,500 at two years of service and $2,500 at five years of service. The agency would need to hire roughly 300 new prison guards to make the shift change possible.

The initiatives need approval from the Republican-dominated Legislature during the 60-day session that begins Tuesday. Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva have said they intend to address some of the problems plaguing the prison system. But Galvano has not committed to the department’s proposed staffing initiatives.

Oliva said Tuesday his chamber is looking at a “notable increase” for correctional staff in the upcoming state budget.

“This is an area that this year, we are looking to have a notable increase because it is important and it is needed,” Oliva said during an interview on the Preston Scott show on WFLA radio in Tallahassee.