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Lawmakers hear report that says path of Florida’s prison system is ‘unsustainable’

Urges $582 million for air-conditioning, a provision questioned by one GOP senator


Florida lawmakers were presented Wednesday with a detailed blueprint of what it would cost to modernize its prison system, with financial estimates ranging between $6 billion and nearly $12 billion to repair buildings and construct new facilities, with hundreds of millions more needed to pay for staffing.

The initial report came from the global consulting firm KPMG, selected by the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS) in 2022 to produce a 20-year master plan for the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC). KPMG will deliver a final report on Dec. 1.

“We have asked for too long for DOC (Department of Corrections) to do too much with too little,” said Northeast Florida Republican Jennifer Bradley, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice. “The salary increases have been helpful in changing the directory of our staffing challenges, but aging infrastructure, making sure that we have enough beds to meet increasing projections, remain big challenges.”

Florida lawmakers in recent years have increased the starting salaries of corrections officers as a way of retaining them, going from a base salary of $33,500 in 2020 to $45,760 as of this past July. The staff turnover rate in the corrections system is 26.3%, according to the report.

The very first slide presented by the KPMG staff to the committee illustrated the seriousness of the problem. It said bluntly, “FDC’s current path is unsustainable.”

Growing inmate population

There are approximately 85,000 prisoners in Florida’s corrections system. According to the report, the system is prepared to safely handle a population of 88,873, which could happen as soon as next year, said KPMG’s Lawrence Spinetta. The report says that the state’s prison population is expected to rise to anywhere between 107,000 to 123,000 by 2042.

The KMPG report lists three strategic options for policymakers.

The first is called “Modernize,” and it would be the most expensive, coming in at an estimated $11.9 billion. It calls for building three new prisons and two hospitals while closing four older prisons. It would reopen 8,294 beds across 16 prisons in the next four years and build 4,640 new dorm beds at existing sites across 18 prisons by 2030.

The second option is called “Manage,” and it would cost $9 billion. It entails building two new prisons and two new hospitals while closing three prisons. It would open 8,294 beds across 16 prisons in the next four years and build 4,640 dorm beds at existing sites across 18 prisons by 2030.

And the third option is called “Mitigate” and would cost $6.3 billion. It would build one new prison and two hospitals, and otherwise would be the same plan as the first two options.

Pinellas County GOP state Sen. Ed Hooper asked whether the federal government would intervene if the correction system continues to degrade without the Legislature acting.

“What we’ve witnessed in other states is a trend of class action lawsuits regarding conditions of confinement, regarding all sorts of these various factors — provisions of health care,” said Bill Zizic, advisory managing director for infrastructure and government strategy with KPMG.

Jeff Goodale, director of justice with HOK, the global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm, told the committee, “Florida is facing a perfect storm” when it comes staffing shortages with its corrections system.

“The consequences can be dire and can be very expensive,” he said. “And I think the biggest one is it can actually erode your public safety system but also the confidence that the public has in the public safety system.”

Aging population

There’s also the reality that the inmate population is growing older, which means that the FDC will need to spend more to care for inmates with chronic health problems. The department now is unable to provide enough inpatient hospital care for its existing population, said KPMG’s Julie Walburn. At any given time, some 1,150 inmates need hospital-level inpatient care, she said, but only 1,121 inpatient beds are available.

And she said there is a growing need to care for inmates who require specialized housing that provides care beyond what generalized population housing can offer.

“For instance, today there are 644 inmates who have advanced dementia, traumatic brain injuries, or other complex health issues that need specialized housing to supplement the outpatient care being provided today,” Walburn said.

The KPMG report lists $582 million to install air conditioning in all of Florida’s prisons. Now, fewer than 25% of all of state’s correction facilitate have air conditioning. It’s a problem that has drawn concern from members of both sides of the political aisle, and stand-alone legislation was recently filed for the 2024 legislative session to address it.

The funding for air conditioning was questioned by Fort Myers Republican state Sen. Jonathan Martin. He asked KMPG officials if that money could instead be spent instead on the more than 14,000 correction officers who work in Florida prisons, “if that would make a difference in retention.”

Zizic said that, actually, including air conditioning in all prison facilities is a factor in staff retention, as well as for safety and efficiency. “There is research out there on that, but especially in states with significant hot and humid summers. It’s very important from a working condition perspective.”

Martin questioned whether that $582 million were spent on increasing the salaries of correction officers — and not on air conditioning — would there still be a shortage of officers wanting to work in the states’ correction system? KPMG officials said that they couldn’t answer that question.

Martin continued, asking whether it was worth the investment “if there’s literally been zero injuries, zero deaths in Florida, due to the lack of air conditioning?”

While the report recommends closing prisons and building others, the locations of those facilities are not listed in the initial report.

Pasco County Republican Sen. Danny Burgess told the KPMG officials at the conclusion of the meeting that he hopes they can provide “course of action” recommendations when they submit their final report next month.

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