FL prisons: Personnel are working in ‘very dangerous situations as we speak’

Acting Corrections chief gets committee nod to inherit system in crisis

By: - February 8, 2022 4:51 pm

Ricky Dixon stands for confirmation as secretary of Florida’s Department of Corrections. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

The Florida Senate’s leading criminal-justice reformers voted Tuesday in support of a new leader for the state prisons system, after requiring the nominee to publicly verify how bad conditions have become behind bars.

“You’re not supposed to show us how great everything is but how awful everything is, so we can help you,” said Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Jason Pizzo, speaking to Ricky Dixon, nominee for secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC).

“We need to know about the ovens that aren’t working, the leaks, the sewage backups, roach infestations. We need to hear those things, otherwise it just paints a rosy picture,” said Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat.

Dixon stated that Florida’s corrections system remains in critical condition due to failing infrastructure — one of the 50 state prison is more than a century old — and emergency-level staffing shortages caused by an exodus of corrections officers.

As many as 200 officers a month have quit in recent months, without an equivalent reduction in Florida’s prison population, forcing remaining officers to work “entirely excessive overtime hours” in understaffed conditions, Dixon said. Aside from a handful of private prisons, the state system is funded and operated by state government.

“Our officers [are] working in housing units in very dangerous situations as we speak,” Dixon said, publicly thanking them and other FDC personnel still on duty.

Dixon has been acting as FDC secretary since November, when the governor’s office announced that Dixon’s then-boss, Mark Inch, would resign in December after serving as secretary for three years.

Corrections Secretary Mark Inch makes a point during a February 2021 Senate hearing on prisons and staffing. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

A U.S. Army major general and former director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Inch butted heads with Republican legislative leaders in 2021. Notably, Inch testified last February that Florida’s prison system was near collapse, and when ordered by Senate budget leaders to identify four prisons that could be shuttered to achieve cost-savings, Inch refused to name even one.

Instead, Inch testified, the system has been starved over the years and needs to be restructured and modernized, including improving wages in order to hire and retain good staff. Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, a member of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, called Inch’s departure a great loss for Florida, corrections personnel, inmates and inmates’ families.

Prison wardens also have abandoned ship at high rates, Dixon said in testimony in September — five in the previous five months, he said.

Questioned by Pizzo, Republican Brandes, and Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell, Dixon acknowledged that Florida’s prison system continues to be plagued by “inmate idleness” that fuels unruly behavior, and that the system does little to assist inmates re-entering society after serving their sentences.

“Florida’s current re-entry system is fifty bucks and a bus pass. What are we doing to improve the re-entry system into society for those that have ended their sentence?” Brandes asked.

“Not a lot,” Dixon answered, though he said transition specialists are “working overtime” to connect inmates to resources in the communities to which they expect to return.

Regarding inmate idleness, Dixon again pointed to critical staff shortages, saying, “We can’t properly operate the programs we have now if we don’t have the proper security staff to man them.”

Brandes asked what Dixon wants families to know about the safety of loved ones behind bars in Florida.

“We can’t guarantee their safety,” Brandes said, citing “robust” gang violence. “What is the message you have to the families of those who are incarcerated?”

Dixon replied: “If your loved one wants to be in a prison environment that’s safe and where they don’t have to fear assaults or the kind of violence that goes on in prisons, they need to work their way to one of our new incentivized prisons.”

Dixon said the department is expanding the use of prisons reserved for non-violent inmates who earn their way in.

“We have prisons where they have not had a fight in over a year,” Dixon said.

Also, he said, the department wants to designate “short-sentence” prisons to keep new, short-term inmates away from long-term inmates who might do them harm.

“They’re so subject to being victimized, historically, and why we haven’t done that years ago, I don’t know,” Dixon said.

Dixon said it was Inch who brought those progressive ideas into the Florida’s corrections system, which includes probation and parole supervision as well as prisons.

Dixon pledged to senators he would be transparent about the system’s shortcomings and alert the governor and legislative leaders when conditions warrant.

“You know how dire and critical the situations are in some of the facilities. Can I count on you, that when you have to and when [a problem] demands it, you’ll pick up the phone and be concerned about your staff and facilities instead of the politics involved in your appointment?” Pizzo asked Dixon.

“Without a doubt,” Dixon said, adding without a pause, “I would like to say I do appreciate him [the governor] coming and listening to every warden in the state.”

Pizzo and Brandes, who frequently visit and inspect prisons — as many as six in one weekend, Pizzo said — did not appear impressed by the gesture.

“It’s sort of the worst-kept secret amongst those of us who visit prisons a lot that it took 33 and a half months for the governor to visit a prison for the first time,” Pizzo said. DeSantis took office 37 months ago, in January 2019.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously to recommend Dixon be confirmed as secretary of the Department of Corrections. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice endorsed the nominee last Wednesday. The final committee to review Dixon will be Senate Ethics and Elections.

The Senate’s proposed budget for 2022-23 calls for $1.3 billion in new funding to build two prisons that are safer, modernized, more effective and efficient, and closer to urban centers where, among other reasons, it is easier to hire and retain personnel.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.