Short on staff, Florida Department of Corrections boosts employee pay and benefits




  • In US
  • 2022-08-10 02:19:34Z
  • By Ocala Star Banner

LOWELL - "Now hiring" signs are up at Lowell Correctional Institution and the Florida Women's Reception Center - two state prisons in northwest Marion County.

Recent increases have stepped up the pay rate for an entry-level correctional officer. The most recent boost brought the annual pay from $33,500 to $41,600.

Then there are potential incentives: a $3,000 signing bonus, $1,000 for high vacancy jobs, $1,000 referral bonuses and $1,500 for returning employees. Benefits include state health coverage and college tuition assistance.

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Although specific numbers were not available, the Florida Department of Corrections stated in an email that "many institutions" in the Marion County area are "at or above a 10% vacancy rate" and are "proactive in recruiting new staff and filling vacancies."

John Siter, assistant warden at Lowell C.I., has been with DOC over 25 years and risen through the ranks. He has served as assistant warden about four months.

The Florida Department of Corrections needs workers.
The Florida Department of Corrections needs workers.  

"This is the best (pay and benefit package) I've seen. None of this existed when I was a correctional officer," Siter said during an Aug. 2 interview.

Siter, who is from the Gainesville area, believes the increases in pay and benefits will enhance "stability and morale" among the staff and create a more positive atmosphere for the inmates and inmate-related programs, which include education and training.

All about Lowell C.I.

Lowell C.I., about 12 miles north of Ocala, is a state prison for female inmates and has a capacity of 1,047. The prison has been beset with accusations of abuse and mistreatment of inmates over the last several years.

A December 2020 investigative report by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (available at justice.gov) did not make legal conclusions, but did say there was "reasonable cause to believe" inmates' Eighth Amendment rights, which include protection from harm and providing reasonable safety, had been violated.

The report cites arrests in alleged cases of rape and sexual abuse by staff members at the facility from 2017 to 2020.

The report states discipline logs from 2017 revealed 18 officers and staff were disciplined under the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) for reasons ranging from failure to report a violation by another officer to "sexual relationship with an inmate."

The Lowell Correctional Institution needs corrections officers.
The Lowell Correctional Institution needs corrections officers.  

The report cites "(s)evere staff shortages at Lowell (CI)" as one of several factors that "enabled" the abuse cases. The staff shortages led to "inadequate supervision of women prisoners, exposing them to the substantial risk of harm from sexual abuse," the report states.

DOC has a "zero tolerance policy" regarding sexual abuse. The department says "improvements have been made" in detection and reporting.

DOC is a big agency

The DOC, with a $2.4 billion budget, operates 50 major correctional institutes and other related facilities statewide, housing about 80,000 inmates and overseeing 146,000 people on probation, according to the the agency's 2020-21 report.

Siter said communication is a key element, and targeted training and briefings for COs are great tools. Siter stated DOC administrations had "conquered a lot of obstacles" where the department had been "stagnant."

"Loyalty (by COs and staff) to the rules and regulations, FDC (Florida Department of Corrections) mission statement and requirements to staff and inmate is No. 1," he said.

Why does DOC have an employee shortage?

The Florida Department of Corrections 2020-2021 Strategic Plan and Annual Report discusses a shortage of correctional officers and correctional probation officers.

The report indicates the annual turnover rate for correctional officers in fiscal year 2019-20 was 29.4%, compared with 16.9% in FY 2013-14.

"FDC is experiencing unprecedented turnover rates in CO and CPO positions. While some of this turnover is due to the stress of extended work schedules and increased demand for overtime in dangerous environments, much of it is attributed to competitively higher salaries paid by county jails and other state law enforcement agencies," the report states.

According to the agency's FY 20-21 Strategic Plan and Annual Report, the DOC has 25,430 employees, 81% of whom are correctional officers and correctional probation officers.

"High vacancy rates among COs simply means less presence, less oversight and less deterrence for violence and other criminal activity," the reports states in a section on "an increasingly violent (inmate) population."

The report details an increasing number of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults, although the number of assaults decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic period.

'A lot of satisfaction' in helping inmates

The Florida Women's Reception Center is the initial intake location for all female inmates with a state prison sentence. it is located directly across Gainesville Road from Lowell C.I.

Frank Gatto, assistant warden of operations at the reception center, stated a person interested in a career with the his agency could "hire, train and work," right here in Marion County.

Gatto, a 20-plus-year DOC employee, originally set his sights on working as a road deputy but entered correctional work and has worked at multiple correctional institutes throughout the state.

He said there is a "lot of satisfaction" in helping inmates.

"(Most of the inmates) do right. (They) made a mistake and don't want to make another one," he said.

Gatto said if a staff member "treats the inmates right, the outcome will be positive" and staff will do well following the "Golden Rule."

Gatto said if a CO ever has safety concerns on the compound, there is a "brotherhood and sisterhood" of fellow officers to assist.

He said there is a DOC motto: "We Never Walk Alone."

Siter added he will occasionally see former inmates working in the community at restaurants.

"I'm glad to see them succeed," he said. "These are your neighbors."

This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Florida DOC needs workers and is increasing pay, benefits, bonuses

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