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300 Florida National Guard members activated to state prisons

Crisis in Corrections
Posted at 12:30 PM, Nov 23, 2022

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — State lawmakers have called it a "Band-Aid", a patch over a scarred prison system on the brink of collapse. Now, it's a plan in motion, with 300 members of the National Guard activated to provide relief at critically understaffed Florida prisons.

I-Team Series | Crisis in Corrections

"To me, it’s spit and chewing gum, trying to keep the Department of Corrections from basically imploding,“ Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg told the I-Team. “Most people don’t understand how desperate the situation is inside the Florida prison system."

To address that "desperate situation," in September, state lawmakers approved $31.25 million at Governor Ron DeSantis' request to fund the National Guard's activation for nine months.

But Brandes contends the state doesn't have manpower to manage the more than 80,000 inmates in Florida's prison system, the third largest in the naton.

"We are thousands of corrections officers short in this state," he said.

National Guard prison locations

Brandes has been at the forefront of a push for prison reform in Florida, sounding the alarm on the crisis in corrections.

“When you have understaffed facilities, what it ultimately means is you have more corrections officer abuse, you have more inmate-on-inmate violence, you have more drugs in the facility, and you have more overall contraband that occurs," Brandes said. "Because of the staffing levels, it creates an opportunity for all of these other negative things to continue to happen.”

Brandes said the need for the National Guard to alleviate excessive officer overtime and give corrections more time to hire and train new staff shows the state legislature hasn't done its job.

“It’s embarrassing, frankly. I think it’s embarrassing, and I think the legislature is embarrassed by the fact that we’re having to call the National Guard in because the legislature hasn’t put enough resources toward this problem to actually fix it," Brandes said. "With staffing levels as desperately short as they are, Florida was bumping up against an emergency release number that would have forced them to begin to release inmates.”

In the 2022 legislative session, FDC received record pay increases to retain and recruit corrections officers, leading to a net gain of nearly 640 officers, a move in the right direction for the first time in years, FDC's chief financial officer reported in September.

Still, it's not enough.

In September, the vacancy rate sat at 24.1% — more than 4,000 employees short. As of November 1, that vacancy rate has dropped to approximately 21%, FDC tells the I-Team.

Reviewing the state's salary database for the Department of Corrections, the I-Team found that more and more people leaving are those in higher ranks, usually corrections officers with more experience.

“What has happened over the last few years, the Department of Corrections has become the training school for other agencies," James Baiardi, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association's corrections chapter, said. "And officers of all ranks have received offers or job opportunities for other agencies, and other agencies have taken advantage of that and have hired employees from the Department of Corrections. And you really can’t blame some of the people for leaving because they do a dangerous job and they want to do it, but they also want to provide properly for their family.”

Baiardi said there's still a lot of work to be done to retain people.

"Working in a prison is dangerous, to begin with. And when you add that you have turnover in staff, which means you have less experienced staff, you have a shortage of staff, that means that you’re working more hours in a dangerous environment. These are all formulas for disaster," Baiardi told the I-Team.

A year after pay increases and bonuses, calling in the National Guard, Baiardi said, shows that there is no quick fix.

"The task is at hand. It was 10 years of — by prior administrations, of overlooking, whatever you want to call it, not concerned about it, that has built up so bad. And I think the greatest fixer of all cannot fix a problem in one day," he said.

Still, Baiardi said, even though relief from the National Guard is short-term, it's necessary. Help is needed immediately, he said.

"The staffing level at the prisons now is in crisis, and it’s an emergency. And I’m glad that the Governor called out the National Guard," Baiardi said. "I give him credit for taking an action."

Looking at the action in other state prison systems, the I-Team found National Guard members activated in Ohio, New Hampshire, Indiana and Idaho for staffing shortages. But those were strictly due to COVID-19 and the pandemic.

In Florida, the National Guard will not be in direct contact positions with inmates. The positions will be more perimeter posts and entry and exit security, for example.

After training at Camp Blanding, 300 members of the National Guard are now assisting at nine prisons in the panhandle, including Northwest Florida Reception Center, Reception and Medical Center, Calhoun, Franklin, Hamilton, Jackson, Mayo, Santa Rosa and Union Correctional for at least nine months.

It's a timeline lawmakers like Brandes doubt.

“I think the staffing for the Department of Corrections by the National Guard could be a lot longer than what's initially projected, based on the type of staffing challenges we’re having today," he said.

“We still have a long way to go," Baiardi told the I-Team, saying the union is working to get additional pay raises next year to retain experienced officers.

Like other issues within the Department of Corrections, activation of the Florida National Guard is something Secretary Ricky Dixon has not discussed with the I-Team.

We first emailed FDC's communications team nearly a year ago in early December 2021, just weeks after Dixon's appointment. Since then, we have sent 17+ emails and made numerous phone calls, reminding FDC of the request and that we could meet any time at any location.

After repeated assurances the department was working to set up a time, in September, the department emailed, "At this time, we are not moving forward with scheduling an interview."

When asked what changed, FDC did not answer the question. The department has said it wants to be transparent. Our request for an interview with Secretary Dixon remains open.