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State closes prisons in Baker, Bradford counties in ‘strategic consolidation’

Department of Corrections employees will be reassigned, will not lose jobs or rank, DOC says

Department of Corrections employees will be reassigned, will not lose jobs or rank, DOC says.
Department of Corrections employees will be reassigned, will not lose jobs or rank, DOC says.

Despite pushback earlier this year for a plan to shutter some state prisons in Florida’s rural regions where the communities rely on their economic impact, the Florida Department of Corrections is moving forward with “strategically consolidating” several Northeast Florida prisons.

Baker Correctional Institution and Bradford County’s New River Correctional Institution will temporarily close, and Cross City Correctional Institution, which was already evacuated because of flooding, will remain empty, FDC said.

All FDC employees will be temporarily reassigned to a neighboring institution. Staff will not lose their job or rank, as these measures are temporary, the department said.

FDC said the inmates will be temporarily relocated and they will not be released early.

Dorothea Kelly said her loved one is an inmate at New Rive, and it’s where he’ll be relocated.

“I hate the fact that he’s going to be moved,” said Kelly. “I tried to find that out and the officer over him said they didn’t know yet.”

Jim Baiardi, the president of the Corrections Chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, said staffing is the main issue for the prison closures, and the main reason for the staffing issue is officer pay.

“The officer’s pay is incredibly low for the risk and type of job they do. My members are tired. A correction officer, he would tell you he’s overworked and underpaid,” said Baiardi.

FDC said it has implemented the following measures to address staffing at institutions:

  • Continuing transitioning correctional institutions from 12-hour shifts to 8.5-hour shifts, as recommended by national experts, and strongly supported through data analysis of safety trends
  • Offering $1,000 hiring bonuses at institutions with 10% or more staff vacancy rate
  • Offering $1,000 hiring bonus for returning certified staff
  • Increasing the rate of pay to $33,500 for (non-certified) correctional officer trainees
  • Hiring part-time certified correctional officers
  • Consolidated work camps and annexes into main institutions

But Baiardi said the pay rate is not enough.

“If their current pay, starting pay is $16.11, it should be $20 to $25 an hour. Not where it is. We need a big jump to not only recruit people but to retain them,” said Baiardi.

Baiardi said the temporary prison closures are expected to happen next month.

He told the Miami Herald that some work camps, including Gainesville Work Camp, and smaller prison annexes in other parts of the state could close soon too.

“This is not the solution to the crisis. This is a temporary band-aid. The number of officers moving is not going to solve the vacancy problem,” Baiardi told the Herald.

Senate Criminal Justice Vice Chair Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, told the Herald the decision to close prisons is a desperate one.

“This should come as a shock to nobody because, essentially, we’ve been treated like the boy who cried wolf for years and, unfortunately, at this juncture, the wolf has come,” Brandes told the Herald. “The challenge that we are seeing within the department is that there are vacant positions all over the place.”

Earlier this year, Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson’s proposal to consolidate prisons and demolish four facilities drew bipartisan pushback when it was released as lawmakers began to piece together next year’s state budget.

Florida has more than 145 correctional facilities -- including prisons, annexes and work camps -- throughout the state, with a concentration in North Florida. Nearly 60% of the facilities are located in rural counties, according to a 2019 report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

The oldest prison still in operation, Union Correctional Institution located in Raiford, was built in 1913. Union and Bradford counties have nine facilities -- including five major institutions -- in a North Florida region known as the “iron triangle.”

State prisons not only provide direct jobs for corrections workers but have a cascading impact on the surrounding communities, where employees buy groceries, eat at restaurants, attend schools and purchase homes.

Rural regions with correctional facilities also benefit from people who patronize local businesses as they make trips to visit loved ones or friends who are incarcerated.

And because inmates are included in counties’ census counts, the loss of prisoners could result in a significant decrease in state and federal revenue-sharing funds, which Levy County Commissioner John Meeks said would deal “another devastating blow” to rural areas.

About the Authors:

Reports weeknights for The Ten O'Clock News and News4Jax at 11.

Senior reporter, News Service of Florida