Florida National Guard members to work at short-staffed prisons

Lawmakers on Friday approved a request from the Department of Corrections to free up $31.25 million that, at least in part, will be used to cover the costs of deploying guard members to prisons.

Pay hikes, shorter shifts and shuttering facilities are some of the strategies Florida has employed to try to rehabilitate a prison system that leaders have said is in crisis.

But despite the efforts, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is calling on Florida National Guard members to work at correctional facilities, a dramatic step meant to alleviate a staffing shortage that has plagued the prison system for years.

Lawmakers on Friday approved a request from the Department of Corrections to free up $31.25 million that, at least in part, will be used to cover the costs of deploying guard members to prisons.

Mark Tallent, the department’s chief financial officer, told the Joint Legislative Budget Commission that the money would be used to pay up to 300 guard members to be deployed to prisons until July.

The guard will assist with perimeter security, entry and exit security and issuing supplies to inmates from secure stations, among other things. Members will be deployed to the Northwest Florida Reception Center, the Reception and Medical Center and the Calhoun, Franklin, Hamilton, Jackson, Mayo, Santa Rosa and Union correctional institutions, according to the department.

“What all this will allow the department to do is take the staff that currently do this that are certified correctional officers and move them into the compound into direct inmate-contact positions, therefore reducing stress on the compound, stress on our current officers and helping reduce overtime,” Tallent said.

DeSantis issued an executive order Friday evening activating the guard “to address the present staffing shortage on a temporary short-term basis.” Currently employed guard members will not be asked to help the corrections department, the order said.

According to the order signed by DeSantis, the state Department of Corrections “is experiencing a severe shortage of correctional officers resulting in the temporary closure of 176 inmate dorms and suspension of 431 supervised work squads.” It goes on to say the shortage threatens the safety of officers, inmates, and the public.”

The search for qualified corrections officers has gotten so desperate in Columbia County that signs have been placed along the road, offering $1,500 signing bonuses, $20 per hour, same-day interviews and immediate job offers.

Jason Easterwood used to be a corrections officer in Baker County and said he thinks the prison should be staffed with corrections officers only that are trained for the job.

“Well, working in a prison is highly stressful. You’re constantly exposed to violence, violence between inmates and violence against staff,” Easterwood said. “Being overpopulated and understaffed makes these issues worse.”

He said working at a Florida prison is unlike any civilian job.

“There are many difficult responsibilities in the prison, most concerned about the National Guard learning following security procedures and completing the required documentation,” Easterwood said. “They also have to deal with violence and inmate manipulation.”

The executive order states that National Guard members will have the capability to assist correctional officers with duties like perimeter patrols, manning control stations and lookout towers and control stations, excluding “any direct supervision of inmates except where such supervision occurs.”

The prison staffing shortage is resulting in “extensive correctional officer overtime,” and guard members will be used for nine months or until the corrections department “determines it no longer needs National Guard assistance,” the proposal said.

The plan drew harsh criticism from Democratic lawmakers and criminal-justice reform advocates.

Speaking to reporters before Friday’s meeting, incoming House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell said the corrections agency sought the emergency relief as the governor travels throughout Florida boasting about the state’s record budget reserves.

“Why would we be trying to spread our National Guard so thin? So, it’s a Band-Aid. We know the infrastructure in our prisons is crumbling, and it’s just appalling that the governor would want to take this sort of tactic,” Driskell, D-Tampa, said. “Florida has ignored this agency, ignored this problem and underfunded this agency for years.”

But hours before the legislative meeting began, the Department of Corrections pushed back with a news release highlighting praise from sheriffs, a warden and the leader of the union representing prison officers.

“We received historic pay increases for our correctional officers and have hired more correctional officers monthly than we have seen in years,” Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon said in the release. “With the temporary support of the Florida National Guard, we will be able to recover and train the next generation of public safety professionals to perform our important mission.”

Rep. Bryan Avila, a Miami Springs Republican who serves on the legislative panel and is a member of the National Guard, said guard members are prepared to do whatever is necessary when called upon.

“When they sign up, just like I did, they do it because they want to serve our great state and they want to serve our great nation,” said Avila, who will join the Senate in November after winning a seat without opposition.

Lt. Col. Peter Jennison, National Guard deputy director of policy and plans, assured lawmakers that the guard will have “full capacity to support the citizens of Florida if we support the Department of Corrections.”

Jennison said the guard “conducted an informal survey” and believes it will have enough volunteers to fulfill the correction department’s request. The volunteers will be paid for the work.

“It gives a great opportunity for a lot of our unemployed guardsmen to have full-time work,” he said.

But Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, remained unconvinced. The Joint Legislative Budget Commission, made up of House and Senate members, has authority to make mid-year budget decisions.

“The issue of our (prison) guard shortage in our prison facilities is not new. And this Band-Aid, I don’t even know,” she said. “It’s a policy issue and it’s something that … should have been vetted before we ever left Tallahassee (during the legislative session). … I understand that our guard gets trained for what they do in the community. Within a prison is a totally different environment.”

Legislators over the past year have approved pay raises and hiring bonuses for corrections workers, hiking starting pay from $16.40 per hour to $20 per hour for corrections and probation officers and earmarking retention-pay increases between $1,000 and $2,500 for employees who remain on the job.

Tallent told lawmakers Friday that the agency for the first time in years is hiring more workers than it is losing.

“We’re definitely trending in the right direction,” he said.

Even so, the department has a 24.1% employee-vacancy rate statewide — rates at some facilities are higher — and more than 4,000 positions remain unfilled, Tallent said.

The agency added 761 new corrections workers over the past four months, Tallent said.

“It’s been years and years and years since we’ve seen four positive months in a row,” Tallent said. “So we think as we continue to hire and reduce the stress on the compounds, the existing officers are going to want to stay because they’re not going to be working the amount of overtime they’re currently working.”

The prison system housed about 82,000 inmates as of the end of June, according to a recent report by state analysts. It has roughly 24,000 authorized positions, including more than 18,000 security positions.

The plan to use guard members is aimed, in part, at helping alleviate stress on fatigued prison workers who continue to log overtime as new employees undergo training, which takes about three months.

The Department of Corrections spent more than $103 million on overtime during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2021, compared to about $35 million five years earlier. Data for the most recent fiscal year was not immediately available.

James Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said in an interview that the use of the National Guard is a short-term fix that will provide relief to prison officers.

“There’s only so long officers can continue to work a bunch of overtime on their days off, excessive hours on holidays, where it begins to affect your health,” he said.

About the Authors:

Senior reporter, News Service of Florida

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.