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State prison staffing shortage costing counties millions

Jails report 12.5 percent population increase
prisoner at jail
Posted at 12:41 PM, Jan 10, 2022

LARGO, Fla. — Florida’s Crisis in Corrections isn’t just impacting faraway state prisons… it’s also taking a toll on county jails right here in the Tampa Bay region.

The ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered that convicted inmates often wait for months to be transferred, leading to jail overcrowding.

Vans drop off new inmates at the Pinellas County Jail multiple times a day.

It’s the entry point to the criminal justice system, where someone who is charged with a crime is booked into jail, posts bond or awaits trial.

But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says the COVID pandemic interrupted the normal process.

“The system stopped. It just came to a grinding halt. Nothing moved. It definitely created a backlog,” Gualtieri said.

County jail populations in Florida climbed 12.5 percent during the 12 month period ending September 30th.

One reason… after a defendant stood trial, was convicted, and was ready to go to state prison, the state didn’t have room for them.

“They couldn’t go. Because of the shutdown of intake from the Florida Department of Corrections,” Gualtieri said.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri

Sheriff Gualtieri says that the backlog continuing for months has led to overcrowding at his facility, where there are already more inmates than beds.

He says that can affect safety for staff and inmates.

“We have about 200 inmates who have to be on the floor because we don’t have bed space. So when you’ve got a full house and you’ve got a couple of hundred on the floor and you’ve got a hundred that should go to the state prison system, that’s what’s causing operational issues,” he said.

The state slowed down accepting new inmates because of a severe staffing shortage, with nearly 30 percent of correction officer positions unfilled.

Staffing is so low, at some facilities a single officer guards up to 250 inmates by himself.  

That’s forced the Florida Department of Corrections to close prisons, work camps, and work release centers while consolidating staff and inmates at facilities.

“All this stuff is at a boiling point and the pot is spilling over now,” said Police Benevolent Association Director Jim Baiardi, who represents corrections officers throughout Florida.

“We have to act now to stop this or we’re gonna have a terrible, critical incident happen in this state. I sure hope it don’t but we’re on the path for that,” Baiardi said.

State senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) says that backlog also impacts counties’ finances.   

“It costs about $125 a day for an inmate to be housed at the Pinellas County Jail. It costs about $50 a day for them to be housed in the prison system and so that cost is being borne by the taxpayers,” Brandes said.

At an average cost of $125 a day, the cost of housing an additional 100 inmates adds up to $12,500 per day, or $4,562,500 per year.

costs of housing 100 inmates infographic
Cost of housing 100 additional inmates per day and per year

The state’s new D.O.C. Secretary Ricky Dixon says Florida’s counties have played a role in creating the crisis.

“We’re just a training ground for county jails and other law enforcement. The state pays to train them, we hire them, we invest all that money in them and as soon as they graduate the academy, they’re going to the local county corrections offices,” Dixon told the Florida House Criminal Justice Committee.

“You get my bonus and you get my training and you leave. And wherever they’re going, that municipality is willing to pay us back for your training,” said Florida Rep. Dianne Hart (D-Tampa).

“When they apply, if they’re qualified, we take them. That’s kind of free enterprise. That’s free market,” said Gualtieri. “But we’re not poaching. We’re not trying to take from them.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced hiring bonuses of up to $5,000 for corrections officers.

The state is also increasing starting salaries by 16-percent to $38,750.

But that’s not enough to compete against some counties.

Starting pay at the Pinellas County jail is $52,000 a year, plus bonuses.

“They’re gonna get a hiring bonus that could be up to $5,000, they could get moving expenses up to about $2,500, plus they’re probably getting a start at about $25,000 more a year than they were making at the state,” Gualtieri said.

“The solution to solve this problem is fairly simple. The state’s gonna have to compete with these agencies,” said Baiardi.

In the meantime, the counties and the state will have to come up with short-term solutions.

Gualtieri says the state recently picked up 55 inmates after he complained.

“We raised the issue with the state, with the department of corrections, with the governor’s office a few weeks ago and they’ve been very responsive to this and said ‘we understand. We’re gonna make changes,’” Gualtieri said.

If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com.