Ron DeSantis stands at a lectern on a stage giving a speech.
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

How Florida’s Dire Prison Staff Shortage Hurts People Inside

by Ryan M. Moser

In response to a shortage of Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) officers, Governor Ron DeSantis on September 9 sent the National Guard to nine state prisons, highlighting an ongoing crisis throughout an overcrowded and understaffed criminal legal system.

The 300 guard members will temporarily provide security, hand out supplies, and perform other duties normally reserved for correctional officers. But while much has been reported about DeSantis’s decision to bring in troops, less has been said about how the lack of basic funding and oversight has impacted those stuck inside the nation’s third-largest state prison system. Chronic staff shortages and high employee turnover rates have plagued the state for years, resulting in dangerous conditions for staff and incarcerated residents. Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder resulting from physical violence are common. Restricted movement due to a lack of supervision at facilities causes interruptions in programs and education.

The staff shortage is evident at facilities such as Dade Correctional Institution, where this reporter was once incarcerated. Although FDC policy requires four correctional officers per 250 incarcerated residents, large groups of men in the chow hall are usually supervised by only one officer. Chaos often ensues as hundreds of people move without direction. Prisoners in cell blocks are routinely assaulted and robbed.

Dade C.I’s. nearly 1,500 residents are often trapped indoors because there is not enough staff to open the recreation yard or the education building for programs. Officer trainees on probation walk around unescorted and execute rudimentary searches, unable to prevent violence or even perform routine tasks like security count.

“We don’t get outside enough because they are always short on officers,” James Stine, an incarcerated resident serving a life sentence, told The Appeal. ”Being trapped indoors every day without exercise affects our physical and mental health.”

Florida’s 50 prisons hold roughly 80,000 incarcerated people. While DeSantis has bragged about efforts to incentivize new recruits with $33,400 salaries and small bonuses, the system remains at a breaking point.
This problem isn’t unique to Florida—there have also been staff shortages in Nebraska and Arizona, which have forced facilities to cut back on the hours they operate. At Riker’s Island, New York City’s largest jail, guards reportedly don’t show up for work, leaving prisoners to open doors, feed meals, and dictate who goes when and where. The problems have energized a preexisting movement to close the facility.

In the Sunshine State, evidence of staff shortages go back to the summer of 2021 when the FDC announced that more than 3,500 imprisoned people and more than 1,500 staff at three correctional institutions would “be temporarily reassigned to a neighboring institution” because they didn’t have enough officers to adequately staff shifts. Since then, some politicians, including Republican former state Senate President Wilton Simpson, have advocated for more prisons to be closed in order to consolidate incarcerated residents into better staffed facilities.

The FDC is the state government’s largest department and the nation’s third largest state corrections system. After health care and education, the FDC’s $2.9 billion budget is Florida’s third largest annual expense.
Morale has been low in recent years, as mandatory overtime and COVID-19, combined with the usual day-to-day stressors of working in a correctional institution, have led to many resignations. When prisons and jails are under-staffed, other employees are required to work extra shifts. Overtime cost the FDC $103 million in 2021 alone, according to a local news report from WFTS, the Tampa area’s ABC affiliate. To retain officers, the FDC has switched to shorter shifts, raised pay, and offered $1,000 hiring and referral bonuses. But 40 percent of new employees still leave after only one-year and 60 percent after two years, according to WFTS. As of November of 2021, the FDC had over 5,500 vacant security positions, WFTS reported.

Prison employees have told me that the situation had grown so desperate that high-ranking prison officials had been asking service workers if they wanted to work as guards.

“Administrators headhunt prison medical staff and cooks to become correctional officers,” a registered nurse told me one day when I was residing at Everglades Correctional Institution. “They just need bodies.”

Correctional officers are routinely encouraged to work extra shifts, and it’s not uncommon to see many guards sleeping inside their Plexiglas officer stations due to exhaustion. This creates unsafe living conditions for prisoners, in addition to the fact that overworked employees are often upset that they have to put in overtime.

“I work a lot of sixteen-hour shifts,” said one pregnant officer at Everglades C.I., sharing with me how tired she was every day. “If you refuse or make up an excuse to leave, the sergeant can write an incident report for abandoning your post.”

Because of the dire need for more correctional officers, many veteran guards are forced to work late while missing birthdays, soccer games, and other special life events. But ultimately it’s the incarcerated residents who suffer from the ancillary effects of a labor crisis inside prison.

“Nobody gets to go to education programs or chapel if there aren’t any extra staff,” said Stine, the incarcerated person serving a life sentence. “We just sit around bored and get into trouble.”

In the news

A Florida court exonerated Sidney Holmes for a robbery he did not commit. He had served more than 30 years of a 400-year sentence. [Maurice Possley / National Registry of Exonerations]

March marks Women’s History Month and the anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to counsel. Appeal alum Emily Galvin-Almanza writes about the women who invented the idea of the public defender more than a century ago. [Emily Galvin-Almanza / Teen Vogue]

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signed a bill banning medication abortion pills. People who violate the law, which takes effect Jul. 1, face up to six months incarceration and a fine of up to $9,000. The bill provides an exemption to protect the mother “from an imminent peril that substantially endangers her life or health.” [The Guardian]

Judge Eleanor Ross sentenced former sheriff Victor Hill to 18 months in prison for violating the civil rights of six pretrial detainees. Hill ordered his staff to strap the detainees in restraint chairs for hours. [Robin Kemp / The Clayton Crescent] From The Appeal: People detained at the Clayton County Jail speak out about horrific conditions.

In 2015, an Alabama police officer killed 16-year-old A’Donte Washington, but prosecutors charged his friends with murder, including LaKeith Smith, who was only 15 when the crime occurred. Currently serving a 55-year sentence, a judge reduced his sentence on Tuesday to 30 years. [Marty Roney / The Montgomery Advertiser] From The Appeal: Police killed Jacob Harris. His friends are serving time for his murder.

ICYMI — from The Appeal

The number of people on the sex offense registry in Florida is spiking due to multiple factors, including strict residency bans in some cities. But, Steven Yoder reports, South Florida leaders seemingly won’t admit a problem exists at all.

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, donate here.