FL prisons have ‘significant vacancies’ in staff positions; lack money for key inmate programs

By: - January 17, 2023 3:39 pm

Barbed wire. Credit: Alex Potemkin, Getty Images.

Despite record pay increases for state corrections officers, Florida’s prisons continue to have significant vacancies, a top corrections official told lawmakers Tuesday.

“Recruitment of qualified applicants and retention of employees has been very challenging in recent years,” said Assistant Secretary Richard Comerford, of the state Department of Corrections. “We have significant vacancies in maintenance, education, probation, inspectors and support staff, not just correctional officers.”

In addition, the agency still lacks financial resources to adequately provide pay for inmates to participate in education, career and technical training and faith, family and financial literacy programs, which the department says is essential to running a safe prison.

Assistant Secretary Richard Comerford of the Department of Corrections speaking to Senate Criminal Justice Committee Jan. 17, 2023. (Credit: The Florida Channel)

“Inmates need meaningful and productive programing,” Comerford said. “Without it, many will turn to contraband drugs, continued criminal activity, and violence. Violence drives up health care costs, security requirements, and makes correctional institutions a dangerous and undesirable place to work.”

Only 17 percent of the prison population is currently enrolled in those programs, according to Comerford.

The remarks came Tuesday at a Senate criminal justice committee. Lawmakers are in the state Capitol for several weeks of committee meetings that lead up to the March 7 regular legislative session.

For years, criminal justice reform advocates had advocated for more pay for corrections officers to help improve conditions at Florida’s correction facilities, a message that has finally moved state lawmakers in recent years. For example, 2022-23 budget signed by Gov. DeSantis last June includes starting salaries at $41,600.

Comerford told lawmakers that prior to the implementation of pay raises last session, “we were losing more correctional officers each month than we gained. Since then, the trends have reversed. We have turned a corner, but we are not out of the woods yet.”

In a presentation to the Senate committee, Comerford listed the three priorities that the agency is looking at going into the 2023 legislative session: Further pay initiatives; programming resources, and funding for prison infrastructure and equipment.

To illustrate the need for more funding, Comerford said that the corrections department has nearly 3,000 vehicles in operation, but two-thirds of them are in need of immediate replacement.

There are now 82,000 inmates in Florida prisons, according to Comerford. That’s a reduction from the approximately 96,000 inmates from early 2020.

While no reason was given for that reduction at the committee meeting, Democratic state Sen. Bobby Powell asked Comerford how much the department has saved financially with fewer inmates. But Comerford said he needed to research that information and get back to him on it.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.