Florida needs to spend at least $2.2 billion to fix a “perfect storm” of problems in its prisons

prison bars
Prison bars illustration by Rawf8 via iStock for WMNF News.

By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Florida needs to spend at least $2.2 billion on repairs, retrofits and staffing to address “‘immediate” needs in the state prison system, according to a new report.

Leaking roofs, corroded doors, broken windows and crumbling stucco were among the facility problems identified in the report by the consulting firm KPMG, which spent a year developing a “master plan” for the state corrections system.

Florida is facing “a bit of a perfect storm,” Jeff Goodale, a subcontractor who worked on the report, told the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

“Inevitably, at a certain point, these systems do get stressed to a point of crisis,” Goodale, who works for HOK Architects, said.

The assessment by KPMG — which was paid $2 million by lawmakers for the 20-year plan — found that a third of the state’s correctional facilities were in critical or poor condition. Aging infrastructure, a projected increase in the number of prisoners and persistent problems with staff vacancies and turnover pose “security and safety risks” for employees and inmates, the report said.

Committee Chair Jennifer Bradley said she met with wardens from across the state before Wednesday’s meeting, which was the first time the draft report was discussed publicly.

KPMG’s findings confirmed what prison experts already suspected, Bradley said.

“We have asked for too long for DOC (Department of Corrections) to do too much with too little,” said Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican whose sprawling North Florida district includes several prisons.

Salary increases for correctional officers approved by lawmakers over the past few years “have been helpful” in addressing staffing problems, Bradley said.

“But aging infrastructure, making sure we have enough beds to meet increasing projections remain big challenges. This roadmap is welcome by those in the trenches across this system,” she added.

The report showed a department-wide turnover rate of more than 26 percent during the fiscal year that ended in July, and staff vacancy rates at some prisons are above 20 percent.

The Department of Corrections, which has more than 14,000 employees working in prisons, for years has struggled to recruit and retain workers. The staffing issues — which have resulted in dorms being shuttered and prison beds being taken offline — prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis in September 2022 to activate the Florida National Guard to work at prisons. Three hundred National Guard members continue to work at the facilities.

The master plan offered lawmakers three options to stabilize the system, which houses about 80,000 inmates and is projected to add another 43,000 prisoners over the next 20 years, according to KPMG.

The most-expensive option — with a $11.9 billion price tag — called for building three 4,800-bed prisons and two hospitals over the next two decades; closing four “maintenance intensive prisons;” reopening more than 8,000 beds in 16 prisons in the next four years; and adding 4,640 beds to existing sites of 18 prisons by 2030.

A second option, costing a projected $9 billion, would make the changes in the most expensive option, except that it would lead to building two prisons instead of three.

A final option, dubbed the “mitigate” plan, recommended building a 4,800-bed prison and two new hospitals — with a total of 900 beds — and reopening and adding beds at existing prison sites. That projected $2.2 billion proposal would include repairs of electrical systems, windows, plumbing systems and security systems.

“Investing in these immediate capital needs allows it (the system) to move from poor or critical to fair or adequate,” Darren Fancher, who works for KPMG subcontractor Meridium Group, told the committee.

The mitigate plan, which the report identified as the “minimum path” to avoid inmate releases, includes $582 million to add air conditioning at existing prisons — after corrections officials struggled to cope with an extended heatwave this summer.

More than 500 prison housing units lack air conditioning, KPMG representatives told the committee on Wednesday.

But Sen. Jonathan Martin, a Fort Myers Republican who serves on the committee, questioned the need for air conditioning in existing or new facilities.

“Do you know if, instead of air conditioning additional beds for inmates, that $582 million could be spent to increase salaries and benefits for the correctional officers that work in a prison, and if that would make a difference in retention?” Martin asked.

KPMG’s Bill Zizic told Martin that air conditioning has a “significant impact” on staff retention.

“This is something that we see across the country. Yes, it is a significant factor, not only for staff retention but for overall safety and efficiency of the facility,” Zizic said. “In states with hot and humid summers, it’s very important, from a working condition perspective.”

Martin pressed the issue, saying that spreading millions of dollars among the 14,000 prison workers would result in a “significant increase” in salaries.

“What was the impetus for the air conditioning? It’s a lot of money,” Martin said, adding that corrections officials reported no deaths or injuries from this summer’s record-high temperatures. “Is it worth the investment, if there’s literally been zero injuries, zero deaths in Florida?”

Other states are in litigation because they do not have air conditioning in prisons, Bradley said. Texas’ corrections system was under court oversight because of the issue.

Air conditioning is a “calculus” for policy makers to decide, Zizic said.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Sunny Isles Beach, asked the consultants, in their final report due next month, to include the cost per square foot for mitigation or construction at each prison.

“There comes a point where it just doesn’t make sense to spend these kinds of dollars,” Pizzo, who has visited all of the state’s prisons, said. “I want to see what it costs, just like we would if we were going to buy a dilapidated house, to retrofit this place and to get high market value for it and it’s sustainable, versus is it just better to knock it down and build a new one.”

The report also found the state needs more prison hospital beds. About 29 percent of prisoners are over age 50. The state is above its 1,121-bed capacity and is projected to have a deficit of 420 hospital beds by 2030.

“As a result, the (corrections) department has to rely on short-term Infirmary beds and community hospital beds, which come at both an increased cost and pose more significant security risks,” KPMG’s Julie Walburn told the committee.

The issue is “compounded” by a growing need for specialized care for inmates with dementia and traumatic brain injuries or other “complex health issues,” Walburn added.

Bradley told The News Service of Florida the report offers lawmakers some “good options.”

“The hope is that there’s the political will in this building to allocate the resources that we need to make sure that we have a prison system that’s sustainable, that isn’t in crisis, that we have beds that we can reopen, that we have failing infrastructure that we can fix, that we have staff that we can retain, and keep our prison system and our public safety on track,” she said after the meeting.

— News Service broadcast journalist Mike Exline contributed to this report.

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