“I’ll tell you one thing,” the voice said, less in anger than with a clear sense of certainty, “that man is never going to be re-elected.”
The man being referenced is Rick Scott, Florida’s current governor, who comes up for re-election in 2014 — which seems like a long way away. Nevertheless, the person making the prediction – who works for the state of Florida, and under the governor – felt certain that among Scott’s many political decisions, closing seven Florida prisons and work camps would backfire badly.
On Sunday I visited one of the seven prisons slated to be closed before July 1, and talked with several corrections officers who work there. Several of them said they flat-out couldn’t believe the governor would target prisons for budget cuts, or that he would be eliminating so many jobs within the Florida Department of Corrections. Some of them talked about moving on to other careers, or getting transferred to another Florida prison – if they’re lucky.
There was even a husband and wife team who had been working at this prison for a combined total of several decades. One of them joked about what would happen if they didn’t get transferred to the same region of the state.
“Imagine if my husband goes to the Panhandle,” she said, “and they send me down to Miami? We can meet somewhere in-between on the weekends.”
She laughed, but only because, as she noted, laughter is sometimes the only way to cope with a situation like this. The couple owns a home near this prison. If they both lose their jobs, they’re not sure what to do next.
Through his appointed secretary of the Department of Corrections, Ken Tucker, Scott’s office made the announcement on Thursday that he would be closing seven Florida prisons and work camps, transferring the inmates housed there to other facilities, while trying to place as many of the displayed employees into vacant positions at other prisons.
The corrections officers were told every effort would be made to transfer them to a facility within a 50-mile radius of where they currently work, but they don’t seem particularly convinced that’s going to happen.
Some of the corrections officers working at this prison, which dates back to the 1960s, live in worker housing made available to them on the highway leading up to the facility. Without this job, they lose their homes as well, the corrections officer noted.
“The ones who don’t get transferred,” this CO pointed out, “have to go on unemployment. So we’re paying them to sit home and not work? Does that make any sense?”
The term “Pink Slip Rick” comes up, a reminder of the governor who came into office in early 2011 and faced a project $3 billion deficit, while pledging to cut property and corporate taxes by another $2 billion – leaving a $5 billion hole in the budget, quite a lot to cut.
Education spending took a big hit, and so did DOC, which experienced a major round of layoffs in 2011 in response to those budget cuts. Last June, DOC cut more than 100 positions in its Tallahassee central office, resulting in 48 layoffs. The agency saved $6 million by trimming 111 positions, which included senior attorneys, food-service specialists, secretaries and clerks.
Budget cuts can be quite unpopular, particularly if you have kids in the public schools and they got hit. Late last year, the governor’s office said it wanted to put $1 billion back in the education budget in 2012, following complaints from Floridians that the state’s schools were hurting. Citing a reduction in crime, the governor said he could take $1 billion from Florida’s DOC budget instead.
Florida now houses 102,000 inmates in 63 state prisons, and supervises more than 115,000 active offenders on community release supervision — the third largest prison system in the nation. So now the corrections officers who work at the seven prisons being closed will spend the next few months transferring inmates to other facilities, while shutting down the place they’ve worked at for years, even decades.
What will be left will be a series of buildings surrounded by tall iron fences with sharp razor wire covering the top — to prevent escapes.
This particular prison I visited on Sunday is a work camp for minimum security prisoners. I spoke to one veteran corrections officer who said he used to work at a maximum security prison, which he found too stressful. If an inmate in maximum security caused problems, they would get placed in solitary confinement – but often put up a major battle on the way into “the hole.”
“These guys are serving life,” the corrections officer said. “They’ve got nothing to lose.”
He recalled the inmate who broke a piece of wire off a fence, sharpened it, and stabbed this officer in the chest. He wasn’t even aware of it until a little later, when a co-worker asked him why he had blood on his shirt.
When he got the new job at the minimum security work camp, he said, it was initially a culture shock. Little to no violence among the inmates outside of routine scuffles, and a more orderly existence altogether. But now that facility is disappearing.
I spoke to the inmates as well while I was there. Several of them shrugged when I asked them where they were headed next; they didn’t know, and didn’t seem to care. One prison is just like any other. One of the inmates got a plastic fork from the prison canteen, then sharpened the tip so it could be used as a knife, a weapon, just in case anyone bothered him. He was far more interested in his weapon than in his transfer.
The officers, though, were angry. They feel to some extent like political pawns.
The union that had previously represented them, the Police Benevolent Association, had endorsed Scott’s opponent in 2010, Democrat Alex Sink. Was this payback?
One of the corrections officers pointed out that in November, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters won an election to be the official collective-bargaining representatives of corrections and probation officers in Florida, ousting the PBA, which had held that role for 30 years.
They now expect the Teamsters to be a much more aggressive combatant against these budget cuts.
“The Teamsters are tough,” the corrections officer said.
Corrections officers are a conservative bunch, a better audience for a tough law and order Republican than a liberal Democrat talking about the social safety net for poor families in urban areas. But now these state workers are angry at the governor who targeted their agency, corrections, for such steep cuts.
Looking around inside the Classification Office where inmates can greet family and friends on weekends, one of the corrections officer looked out at the buildings that make up this prison, and wondered aloud if this property would eventually be sold off to the private sector – and perhaps eventually reopened as a privately-run prison.
State lawmakers have already considered privatizing health care at the state’s prisons to save an estimated $75 million. Last year, the Legislature voted to defund the Correctional Medical Authority, effectively abolishing an independent state agency created in 1986 in response to litigation filed against state prison conditions. The agency’s nine employees would visit the state’s prisons, evaluating whether they were providing constitutionally adequate health care. Now that agency is gone.
If the governor privatizes the prisons, this officer noted, the new operators can bill the state for the cost of feeding, clothing and providing medical care to the inmates, while benefiting from inmate labor that brings money into the institution.
“They can bill the state $30,000 for food,” the officer pointed out, “and only spend $10,000 on what they feed the inmates, and pocket the rest.” Rock-bottom food, pitifully inadequate medical care, shopworn clothes — anything to save a buck. It’s just inmates, after all, not the Hilton, right?
Nobody knows if that’s going to happen. All these corrections officers know is that their jobs may disappear by spring, and their future is completely up in the air – unlike the inmates, ironically, who won’t be looking forward to an early release as a result of the prison closings.
And a prison that’s housed people who violate Florida’s laws for the past 50 years could end up being demolished, while the land that once brought together convicted felons could end up as something else — perhaps a row of McDonald’s, gas stations, or convenience stores, instead.
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