Study: Florida prisons understaffed and deteriorating - Fox29 WFLX TV, West Palm Beach, FL-news & weather

Study: Florida prisons understaffed and deteriorating

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's prisons are understaffed, lack adequate prison programs, have deteriorating facilities and fences and have a high turnover rate that's led to inexperienced officers being responsible for some of the most important duties, according to a report that sheds an unflattering light on the Department of Corrections.

The 178-page report was prepared for a legislative research office and exams staffing, security and inmate issues in the prison system that houses about 100,000 prisoners. It found far more bad than good while making recommendations to the department and Legislature on how to address shortcomings at Florida's prisons.

The study involved visits to a variety of prison facilities and interviews with 284 corrections employees, including 125 prison officers, as well as a large number of prisoners.

This is what it found:

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STAFF AND SALARY

— Over the last decade, the number of correctional officers has dropped from 12,099 to 10,973 despite a growth in the prison population.

— Officers earn an average of $31,951 and are among the lowest paid among the nation's largest states. They haven't received a general pay increase in eight years.

— The officer turnover rate has increased by 50.4 percent over the last six years and is one of the highest of the nation's largest states.

— Half of the department's correctional officers have less than 3.1 years of experience. That figure gets worse at the state's most difficult facilities. Officers at the state's largest prison, Okeechobee Correctional Institution, have an average of less than 10 months experience.

— About 25 percent of new officers leave the department during their first year on the job and 32 percent leave within two years. That means this year the department will spend $900,000 training officers that will leave within two years.

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SECURITY

— Prison housing units are often staffed at a bare minimum, and even then officers are often pulled from those assignments for secondary duties. That commonly leads to one officer being left responsible for keeping an eye on more than 100 inmates. "With limited housing unit supervision, inmates are presented with frequent opportunities to involve themselves with illicit activity."

— There are increasing reports of inmate-on-inmate sexual offenses. At one medium-sized prison, there were 147 reports of lewd and lascivious acts committed by prisoners toward female officers — an increase of 100 percent over five years.

— A problem with drugs, cellphones, weapons and other contraband is made worse by a lack of staff to adequately search prisoners, employees and visitors. Security equipment is outdated and prisons lack modern equipment like scanning technology that could detect contraband.

— Prisoners aren't allowed to smoke, but staff can bring one pack of cigarettes to work each day, which has led to trafficking with inmates. Cigarettes are sold for as much as $10 each.

— The department doesn't have enough staff assigned to investigate and identify prison gang members, leading to an underreporting of prison gang activity.

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FACILITIES

— The average age of the facilities is more than 30 years. "Many facilities are in poor condition. The correctional facilities reviewed have experienced years of neglect."

— The medical unit at one prison had to be closed because roof leaks caused mold and mildew that made it uninhabitable.

— Fences are deteriorating, including a stun fence around a high-security housing unit that is obsolete.

— The department's 3,000 vehicles are an average of 16 years old and have been driven an average of 160,000 miles. Virtually all of prisoner transport buses are eligible for disposal and have an average of more than 300,000 miles.

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PRISONER PROGRAMS

— The three core inmate programs — education, vocational and substance abuse treatment — have a combined capacity for 13,637 prisoners, or 14 percent of the prison population. "It does not come close to meeting the needs of the inmate population."

— Because of staffing issues, prisoners being brought to programs often have to wait in crowded, confined areas for up to an hour, which takes time away from their instruction and creates and atmosphere that can lead to negative behavior.

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DEPARTMENT RESPONSE

"The Department is currently reviewing the report and looks forward to incorporating the information and policy recommendations ... into our strategic initiatives." — Corrections spokesman McKinley Lewis.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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