Florida prison system ‘unsustainable’ without billions in upgrades, auditor says

Florida’s prison system is “unsustainable” in the long run without infusing billions of dollars into it for renovations, staffing support and at least one new prison, according to an auditing firm hired by the state.

The state hired KPMG in late 2022 to create a 20-year master plan for the Florida Department of Corrections. The firm presented a draft of its findings to a group of state senators on Wednesday.

KPMG offered up three different plans, saying the state will need to decide whether it wants to “modernize,” “manage” or “mitigate” the problems in its prisons. In each plan, the firm said Florida needs to build at least one new prison, create hundreds of hospital beds and reopen dorm beds that have been closed because of short staffing.

The estimated costs over 20 years could run anywhere from $6 billion to $12 billion, depending on the plan. That includes $582 million for new air conditioning systems and $2.2 billion for immediate repair needs. The company also said the state needs to invest $200 million to $700 million a year to increase staffing.

The report says investing in the department’s needs will avoid billions of dollars in spending over the next 40 years, including money spent continuing to patch up aging facilities and dealing with potential lawsuits.

The department has long struggled to retain the amount of staff needed to safeguard Florida’s nearly 90,000 inmates. Gov. Ron DeSantis in September 2022 deployed National Guard members to work in the prisons.

Presenters from the auditing firm told the senators that the staffing issue could pose major safety and security issues, especially as Florida’s inmate population is forecasted to grow anywhere from about 108,000 inmates to about 124,000 inmates over the next 20 years.

Without fixing the staffing issue, none of the 20-year plans can proceed as forecasted, presenters said. There are still multiple facilities with vacancy rates over 24%, and at one facility, Baker Correctional Institution, the operational vacancy was 72% as of September.

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All plans recommend reopening 8,294 beds that have closed because of staffing and building space for 4,640 new beds across existing prisons. To reopen closed dorms, the firm estimates the Legislature will have to spend between $98 million to $115 million on staffing salaries, benefits and bonuses, adding somewhere between 1,100 to 1,300 full-time employees.

In its most ambitious plan, meant to “modernize” the prison system, the auditing firm recommends the department build three new prisons and two new hospitals over the next 20 years, and close four aging prisons. Hospitals are needed because Florida’s prison population is aging and the state already does not have enough inpatient beds for inmates, the company said.

The mid-tier proposal, which KPMG said would “manage” the situation, recommends building two new prisons and two new hospitals and closing three aging prisons. Their lowest-tier plan recommends building one new prison and two new hospitals and not closing any facilities.

In an analysis of 119 sites, the auditing firm found only 44 in good or excellent condition, while 16 others were in critical condition. The presentation showed corroding doors and windows and deteriorating roofs.

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Under DeSantis, correctional officers have received pay raises and are now at a starting salary of about $45,760. Even with those raises, the prison staffing levels continue to struggle: About 2,219 correctional officer positions are vacant. The governor in 2022 vetoed $645 million from the state budget meant to build a new prison.

Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon said the report highlighted issues the department has been talking about for a while.

Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, questioned the recommendation to spend half a billion dollars on HVAC, asking if it could be better used on staff salary and benefits.

Members of the auditing committee said air conditioning is important for staff working conditions. Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, also pointed out that other states have been sued for failing to have air conditioning in their prisons.

The report did not examine whether changing certain criminal justice policies could help reduce the inmate population. At the end of the presentation, some inmate advocates said the state should consider releasing more inmates, including those who are low-risk or unlikely to re-offend.