Credit: Florida Department of Corrections
Some correctional officers in the state’s prison system will get a boost in pay beginning next year, plus other incentives to attract new applicants. But Florida has more to do to pump up salaries for new and veteran correctional officers, nationwide data show.
Gov. Ron DeSantis touted the measures in mid-November — part of an initiative for the Florida Department of Corrections, which has been struggling to employ and retain its staff in prisons across the state.
DeSantis, a staunch supporter of law enforcement officers, had earlier announced a plan to increase correctional officers’ starting salary to $38,750, beginning January 2022.
But U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that most states across the country have higher salaries than Florida for what’s considered entry-level correctional officer pay.
For example, Rhode Island pays its annual, entry-level correctional officers $59,410. Massachusetts pays $57,120, and California, $54,340. The Florida figure for entry-level correctional officers is listed at $37,760.
The data is based on a May 2020 survey on Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics.
That said, in the Deep South, Mississippi’s figure is just $22,570; Louisiana’s entry-level pay for correctional officers is $23,040 and Kentucky, $24,230, the federal data show.
And those are just entry-level salaries.
The median annual wage in 2020 for correctional officers in the United States is $47,440, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even with salary increases coming in 2022, Florida still has a long way to go to compete with other states such as California and Massachusetts, where correctional officers earn about $75,000 to $83,000, based on median figures in the federal data. Rhode Island and New Jersey also have median annual salaries in the mid 70,000s.
Overall, Florida’s prison system has been faced with threats amid the COVID-19 pandemic and many institutions have struggled to employ enough workers to monitor inmates and recruit new workers. Prison advocates want the state to do more.
James Baiardi, president of the State Corrections Chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said in a phone conversation with the Florida Phoenix that the pay raise for officers in Florida “is a starting point,” and those positions “historically have had somewhat of turnover problems.”
“In California, the correctional officers are some of the highest paid law enforcement officers…nationally, Florida is below,” Baiardi said, adding that he had worked in the prison system for over 30 years.
The situation for corrections workers has been troublesome in Florida. Officers have been leaving in droves, leading to a 28.5 percent vacancy rate, according to a September report from the Florida Department of Corrections. Some officers have had to monitor over 200 inmates by themselves at facilities.
“Of course, you have some new problems that affect hiring and retention. For example, COVID – the correctional facilities, not only in Florida but nationwide, are one of the biggest spreaders of COVID-19,” Baiardi said.
Meanwhile, the state plans to offer other incentives to recruit and retain officers in the prison system. A spokesperson from the Florida Department of Corrections said an email to the Phoenix that it has increased outreach efforts through recruitment videos and a new website with information about the hiring bonuses.
Effective immediately, each new officer will receive a payment of $3,000, the governor has stated. Officers joining “high vacancy institutions” will receive $1,000, while applicants who are certified can also earn a $1,000 hiring bonus.
Although increasing pay for new officers is needed, the state should also focus on addressing issues with pay among more experienced correctional officers, Baiardi said. The prisons will need veteran officers to train new hires and not rely solely on training from the academy, he added.
“What kind of happens is that the veterans somewhat are like the forgotten class,” Baiardi said. “I think you need those veteran people. They have to fix the starting pay and veteran pay…you can’t replace experience of a correctional officer; it’s something that takes you years to get.”
Vicki Hall, president of AFSCME Florida, a labor group, told the Phoenix in an email that the state should also focus on raising pay for other workers in the prison system. Overall, the union is advocating for all “state workers who are currently facing continually rising expenses for food, housing and gas,” Hall said.
“If corrections officers receive raises, other frontline workers in the corrections system should also be recognized for their hard work under difficult conditions. A variety of workers in addition to COs administer to the medical, spiritual and physical needs of the population with huge understaffing issues due to the dangerous nature of the work,” she said.
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