Simpson calls for prison shutdowns, blasts corrections leaders

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TALLAHASSEE --- Senate President Wilton Simpson has a message for state prison leaders: Shut down institutions if you want pay raises for overworked corrections officers.

Simpson, in a phone interview Thursday with The News Service of Florida, blamed chronic staffing shortages and high turnover rates on corrections officials’ “lack of vision” and “myopia” in operating the troubled prison system.

“I think there’s a leadership crisis at the top,” Simpson, a Trilby Republican who is running for state agriculture commissioner next year, said.

Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch is asking for $171 million during the 2022 legislative session to increase prison officers’ starting salaries from the current $33,400 a year --- $16.70 per hour --- to $41,600 a year, or $20 per hour. The request is aimed at addressing staffing problems that have prompted officials to temporarily shutter two prisons, close hundreds of prison dorms and suspend work squads throughout the state.

Simpson acknowledged that correctional officers need to have their salaries increased.

But the Senate president was adamant that the department should shutter a handful of prisons and use the savings --- about $40 million annually per institution --- to boost wages and build larger, air-conditioned prisons that are storm resistant.

“We are not just going to write a bigger check because they think they need it. That is not going to happen. They’re going to have to do the right thing. We are not going to waste the taxpayers’ dollars,” Simpson said.

Without identifying Inch by name, Simpson excoriated the state agency’s top brass for resisting the effort to replace “old and dilapidated” facilities, which can house about 1,500 inmates on average, with modern institutions that could accommodate double the number of prisoners.

“The Department of Corrections needs to back up from what their positions have been the last few years and look at the real world, not through the bureaucratic lens they are currently looking at it through, and say, ‘You know what, that sounds like a very good plan,’” Simpson said. “I could not agree more that we need a major overhaul of the system. What I’m telling you is, with the current leadership, I see no signs that they’re willing to even talk about it in an intelligent way.”

When asked to comment on Simpson’s criticism, the department provided a statement outlining some of the steps taken to address staffing shortages, such offering $1,000 hiring bonuses at severely understaffed facilities, reducing daily shift hours and consolidating work camps and annexes into main institutions.

“The executive office of the governor is supportive of pay increases to ensure the Florida Department of Corrections can recruit and retain high-quality talent to serve Florida,” the statement said. “Gov. (Ron) DeSantis has continued to show appreciation to those who uphold public safety in Florida, most recently through one-time $1,000 disaster relief payments available for corrections officers, law enforcement officers and other first responders.”

With many of the state’s correctional institutions built more than a half-century ago, discussions about closing and consolidating prisons have brewed for years. The latest debate occurred this spring, when the Senate included a plan to shutter and demolish four prisons in its state budget proposal. The final budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, however, allowed the corrections department to shut down one prison and provide a plan for the closure to legislative leaders by the end of the year.

Officials in rural counties have strenuously objected to proposals that would mothball prisons in their areas, arguing that the institutions are economic drivers.

But Simpson accused “the current leadership” at the corrections department of using a “scare tactic” to convince county commissioners to oppose his plan.

“There’s not one senator that would want to cut out jobs in those small communities,” he said.

The Senate president emphasized that the closures should be focused in regions of the state where “clusters” of correctional facilities exist. In some locales, prisons are located within walking distance of each other. He also noted that the state prison system has a capacity to house about 97,000 inmates but currently has an inmate population of around 80,000. Some prisons are nearly 50 percent vacant, according to Simpson.

“It’s common sense. And bureaucracy don’t have any of it, or very little of it,” Simpson, a multimillionaire businessman, said. “They say, ‘You don’t have any experience running a prison.’ You’re right. But I understand math.”

The department in August temporarily closed two prisons because of staffing shortages and shuttered a third after it flooded following a storm. The state routinely has to evacuate inmates from aging facilities when hurricanes approach.

Closing four prisons would leave the department with the capacity to house about 91,000 inmates, Simpson estimated, even without new facilities. Meanwhile, lawmakers could come up with a template for large prisons that would have air conditioning, be able to withstand storms and provide a work environment that would be more attractive to potential employees, he argued.

“Are you going to tell me you can’t shut four of those down, three of them down, four of them down, and generate $160 million a year of recurring revenue to pay down these expenses? And the answer is, damn right you can. And when you do it, by the way, you will have better staffed prisons,” Simpson said. “Now, is that going to disrupt some of the management team? Yes, because you’ll need much less management because you’ll have less facilities to manage. That’s OK. It’s called moving forward. And we can do it with the dollars that are in the system today. You just have to have somebody who’s not so myopic, somebody with a vision that can make it happen.”

But corrections officials maintain that the inmate population has plummeted, in part, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and that the state will see an influx of inmates as courts work through a backlog of felony cases. According to a recent report from the state Criminal Justice Estimating Conference, the inmate population is projected to increase to 86,223 at the end of the current 2021-2022 fiscal year and continue gradually increasing to 93,414 inmates at the end of the 2026-2027 year.

Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon last week warned a House panel of a looming disaster if lawmakers don’t boost corrections workers’ salaries.

“Here’s the bottom line. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years in this system, in this state. The difference is, back then we had the given resources to do the job right,” Dixon told the House Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee on Sept. 22. “Today, this evening and tonight, many of those officers working in dormitories throughout our state, they have no one to back them up. They’re alone and they’re at the mercy of other inmates --- not staff, but other inmates --- to come to the rescue should other inmates intend to cause them harm.”

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