BY DARA KAM
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Senate is easing back on a plan to shutter and demolish four state prisons, agreeing Wednesday to a proposal that would close a single, 1,500- bed correctional institution by Dec. 31.
The prison consolidation and closure plan is included in the Senate’s $95 billion state budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Leaders in small counties where many prisons are located have pushed back against possible closures, saying that the institutions are economic drivers in financially strapped regions.
Sen. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat whose heavily rural North Florida district includes 11 correctional institutions, said lawmakers should be “absolutely certain that we’re really, really thinking about the impact this will have” on small counties if prisons are mothballed.
“I can tell you that closing any prison in a fiscally constrained county will be catastrophic,” Ausley said during floor debate about the budget plan, which the Senate unanimously approved.
Critical staff shortages
Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch is grappling with critical staffing shortages he says could endanger prison workers and inmates.
The revised Senate plan approved Wednesday would require Inch’s agency “to develop a comprehensive facility consolidation plan” by Sept. 1 and to shut down one prison by the end of the year but wouldn’t require the institution to be razed.
Under the Senate approach, a facility would be targeted for closure based on a variety of factors, such as the age and “facility maintenance needs;” proximity to other prisons; the “local labor pool and availability of workforce for staffing the institution;” historical correctional officer vacancy rates at the prisons; and “the impact of closure on the local community’s economy.”
Lower numbers cited
Ausley acknowledged “staffing is a real issue across the state,” but she said prisons offer the best employment in some rural regions.
“In most of my rural counties, the prison is the number one or number two employer. … If the jobs move out of the county, the families are going to move also,” she said.
But Sen. Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican who is in charge of the Senate’s criminal justice budget, pointed out that Florida’s inmate population – which was around 100,000 six years ago – has declined.
“We could close six prisons if we looked at it simply by a numbers standpoint, so starting with one, let the DOC (Department of Corrections) go through this process I think is the right step, the first step in the right direction,” Perry said.
Backlog of cases
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s inmate population has dropped to 79,000 inmates. But the number of state prisoners is expected to climb as the corrections department resumes accepting inmates from county jails and as courts clear up a backlog of felony cases amassed during the pandemic.
The House has taken a different approach to prisons in its $97 billion budget plan. The House would give the corrections agency until Dec. 31 to submit a written report to House and Senate leaders and Gov. Ron DeSantis “in the event the Department of Corrections elects to develop a comprehensive plan” to close two state-operated prisons.
DeSantis did not include prison closures or consolidation in a budget proposal released in January. Lawmakers will iron out differences between the two chambers’ budget plans before wrapping up the 2021 legislative session on April 30.