TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s top prison official is calling for lawmakers to raise pay for state prison employees.
During a presentation of the Florida Department of Corrections’ budget request for next year, Secretary Ricky Dixon said he wanted to raise the starting salary of correctional officers from $41,600 to $45,760. That would come at a cost of nearly $74 million for the year.
“We have tremendous momentum based on last year’s efforts, and we do know we need to continue to ensure the correction system fully recovers from the staff deficits,” Dixon told legislators on Wednesday.
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The situation was so dire last year that the stspante spangreed to staff prisons with Florida National Guard members. Among the efforts to alleviate the issue was a recent pay increase that boosted a $33,500 starting salary to the current amount.
It’s not just correctional officers who would get more money in the bank if the Legislature goes with the request. FDC is asking for pay increases for other correctional employees as well, like maintenance staff, which Dixon says have seen vacancy rates go from 7% in January 2020 to 30%.
FDC Deputy Secretary Richard Comerford said earlier this week there are currently 5,000 vacancies agency-wide.
The department wants more than $84 million for various repairs, renovations and security improvements, which Dixon says is not a wish list but “actual urgent needs that need to be repaired immediately.”
He said every dollar is linked to one of the following categories: safety and security of the public, staff and those incarcerated, current dangerous living and working conditions, and failing infrastructure.
“No secret that we’ve we struggled with staff shortages, declining working conditions and lack of funding and increased danger for many years,” Dixon said. “So we feel very confident about the direction we’re heading in. We just want to continue that momentum.”
Overall, FDC is requesting $3.4 billion, a more than 12% increase from what they got this year.
Jim Baiardi, president of the Corrections Chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said he thought the request was a good starting point, but he wanted the state to put more money toward correctional officer veterans, so they are less likely to be recruited elsewhere. The FDC request includes $3.4 million for retention pay.
“We have to have the prisons properly staffed for programs to take place for inmates and for prisons to run safely,” he said.
Ann Beal Salamone, whose son is currently incarcerated, took to the podium after the presentation to tell lawmakers that she supported the budget request. She also encouraged them to look at laws that would reduce the amount of people who were sent to prisons and the amount of time they spent there.
“Part of the problem that FDC is facing is that because of our history since the 1980s, we have incarcerated many people, now 83,000, and for longer sentences than is what is customary in other places around the world,” she said. “This has certainly put FDC in a bad position.”
She advocated for reentry programs, job and life skills trainings and a reduction in how much of someone’s sentences has to be served if they have good behavior – right now, it’s 85%.