New Fla. corrections secretary says 'status quo' in prison system can't continue

Mark Inch told lawmakers staffing shortages and funding shortfalls contribute to inmate violence and CO injury

Mary Ellen Klas
Tampa Bay Times

TALLAHASSEE — It’s hard not to notice the title of the book Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch is delivering to every prison warden and legislator who will listen: The Devil’s Butcher Shop.

The book by Roger Morris chronicles one of the deadliest prison riots in American history at the New Mexico State Penitentiary at Santa Fe in 1980. For 30 hours on a February weekend, prisoners took 12 corrections officers hostage, mutilated and murdered 33 inmates, hacked some with knives, tortured others with blow torches, and raped and terrorized scores of others.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch warned lawmakers and correction officers that the way state prisons are currently run will endanger inmates and COs. (Photo/TNS)
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch warned lawmakers and correction officers that the way state prisons are currently run will endanger inmates and COs. (Photo/TNS)

Inch, who came to Florida after a brief stint as head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, urges readers to turn to the chapter titled, “Foreshadow” because he says he believes the riot was not only foreseeable, it was preventable — and Florida should take heed.

“They had a lot of the warning signs that we have,’’ he explains during a meeting in his conference room in Tallahassee’s Farris Bryant building.

He points to a white board on the wall and a graph that shows how Florida’s prison system had “gone from excellence, to satisfactory to marginal” — just as New Mexico’s did.

Years of budget cuts and legislative indifference have led to an understaffed, inexperienced crew of corrections officers in command of a penal system stripped of educational programs. They operate out of aging facilities with an increasingly hostile inmate population — as many 70% of whom enter with a substance abuse problem — and a gang hierarchy that is powerful and growing.

“You should have an expectation that this will not happen in Florida — and if I think this is going to happen in Florida, trust me I’ll be screaming a lot louder than I am now,’’ he says. But he points to the dotted line on his chart that shows how outlier conditions that spawned the New Mexico riot could be replicated here.

He emphasizes: “The status quo is not sustainable .... We are now at the point that we must pay for the savings garnered in previous years.’’

It’s practically the same speech Inch has given to the Florida House and Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittees, where he delivered carefully prepared remarks, peppered with jargon, but punctuated with warning.

“The status quo cannot continue because that’s, that’s — pick your metaphor — the death spiral, or the plane crashing into the side of a cliff or, you know, the tipping point,” Inch says.

The 1980 riot in New Mexico exploded from a cauldron of simmering dysfunction — substandard living conditions, a culture of brutality among both inmates and staff, and a staff so inexperienced that 80% had been there less than two years.

Fast forward 40 years, and that description fits much of Florida’s prison system, the third largest in the nation with 95,000 incarcerated and 166,000 on probation. Only 18 of the state’s 50 largest facilities have air conditioning, and conditions got worse in August as windows were boarded up for days at some prisons as Hurricane Dorian approached.

Brutality and abuse are common, and on the rise.

At the state’s largest women’s prison in August, four male officers attacked inmate Cheryl Weimar, who suffers from mental illness. They dragged her “like a rag doll’’ through the facility, taking her outside, away from cameras, then resuming the assault until she was near death, and now a quadriplegic, says her lawyer, Ryan Andrews. The four were not immediately fired but reassigned. The lawsuit could cost the state tens of millions.

Money is the root causeInch, who spent most of his career as a commander in Army prisons, speaks obliquely of an “issue of culture” within his department, but he focuses blame for the root of the dysfunction on one thing: funding shortfalls and staffing decisions that have proven to be “demonstrably counterproductive and exceptionally detrimental to the department’s ability to meet its mission requirements.”

The staff attrition rates in a high-employment economy tell the story: “fewer and fewer are willing to carry this burden.”

“The negative impacts cannot be overstated. They impact every facet of the department,’’ Inch told the House Justice Appropriations subcommittee in September, noting nearly half of the corrections officers had been there two years or less.

Since the change from 8- to 12-hour minimum shifts in 2012, Inch said, corrections officers with less than two years of experience increased by 67%; inmate on inmate assaults increased by 67%; inmate assaults on staff increased 46%; introduction of contraband increased 484%; inmate gang population increased 141%; use of force incidents increased more than 54%; and correctional officer overtime increased 549%.

As he spoke to a House committee in October, Inch put a trophy of an eagle on the podium and noted that Florida’s prison system was the recipient of a national award of excellence in 1981. It is time to return to those standards, he said, when “aberrant and substandard behavior was easy to identify.”

On the office white board, Inch has also written four bullet points he says are needed to repair the troubled system: “Reduce Staff Attrition and Vacancy Rates; Reduce Inmate Violence, Addiction, Idleness and Recidivism; Curb Rising Health Care Costs; and Address Aging Infrastructure.”

In this low-key way, Inch is delivering the same message two prison secretaries before him have given. Pay now or pay later, they warned. The state must raise prison salaries, fix deteriorating buildings, and give inmates something to do or the financial cost that is burdening taxpayers will take an increasingly human toll.

Will legislators listen? The track record isn’t encouraging.

Gov. Scott started cuttingThe Legislature began extracting money from the prison system in 2011-12, when as part of a campaign promise to cut $1 billion from the prison system and use the money to fill holes in the state’s recession-weary budget, then Gov. Rick Scott advanced a budget that cut 3,700 prison jobs by transitioning corrections officers from 8- to 12-hour shifts.

The decision led to a 150% increase in officer turnover, and ravaged the ranks of talent and experience. But it also allowed legislators to shift money from prisons to other programs.

In 2016, after being hit by lawsuits and pummeled by reports of inmate abuse and agency coverups, Scott would attempt to reverse the failed idea. He called for $36 million to return to 8-hour shifts and the hiring of 734 new corrections officers. But the Legislature had little sympathy.

Lawmakers gave Scott only 215 additional positions and left other budget holes so deep that then-FDC Secretary Julie Jones had to hold 1,300 positions vacant in 2016 to pay $25 million needed in officer overtime.

Florida taxpayers ultimately paid the tab for the cost savings that never materialized. By 2018-19, 4,400 corrections officers left the agency that fiscal year — 15.7% of the 28,000 workforce — at a cost of $159 million. New hires were trained, stayed for a year and then left for other jobs — often in local law enforcement where starting salaries are significantly higher.

In the last year, expenses attributed to the 36% turnover rate cost $36,226 for each officer who started with the agency, more than the $30,050 starting salary for most newly hired guards. There are now more than 3,000 vacant positions in Florida prisons, and the overtime costs $77 million.

Only the Legislature can stop this waste.

Every year it asks agencies to submit their budgets and then decides how much to allocate to them. The Florida Department of Corrections is the state’s largest agency, the nation’s third largest prison system, and has a budget of about $2.8 billion. That’s about 3% of what is expected to be a $92 billion budget.

A healthcare crisisThe most recent low point, Inch says, was in 2017. That year the agency had to shift money from payroll and operations in order to pay its healthcare bills in the face of court orders.

The personnel shortage cost more than overtime: 428 inmates died in custody in 2017, a 20% increase from the previous year, as violence among inmates reached an all-time high. Corrections officers were stabbed and beaten, and prisoners were killed in clashes that erupted between the keepers and the kept.

In July 2017, about 20 inmates at Gulf County Correctional Institution took over several dorms and injured seven correctional officers. Two months later, to quell rumors of another riot, then-Secretary Jones ordered all facilities on lockdown.

Inch, who served as a battalion commander at the military’s maximum security prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, said one of his responsibilities was to “be responsible for putting down any type of inmate uprising.”

He is now asking the Legislature to fund “security threat group sergeants” at every Florida prison. They will be responsible for keeping track of the criminal networks in the prison and watch for warning signs of unrest “so that you can then take action before you lose a facility.”

After hearing Inch assess the problem, Gov. Ron DeSantis has endorsed ending the 12-hour shift rule and supports offering retention bonuses to attract a more mature and experienced officer corps for Florida’s prisons.

Last week, he proposed a budget that includes a pilot program to move one-third of Florida’s corrections officers from 12-hour shifts to 8.5-hour workdays, $60 million in bonuses to retain staff who stay for two and five years, and the hiring of 292 new full-time officers.

Inch is also aware of the “culture issues.” At a recent training for lieutenants and captains in the officer corps, the instructor asked them to do some self reflection and write down three negative personality characteristics they have developed since taking this leadership position.

He read down the list of answers: “low regard toward humanity and the world,” “inability to vent or relieve stress,” “started drinking,” “short tempered,” “no sleep,” “attitude change at home almost caused my divorce.”

“That’s what 12-hour shifts and vacancy rate result in real people’s life,’’ Inch told legislators.

Inch calls the lieutenants and captains the core of the prisons.

“They have the biggest impact on the ground, and frankly discipline of, of our correctional officers. And if that is what they are feeling and what they are experiencing ... any optimism I have will never make it to the line staff.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who heads the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations subcommittee, doesn’t want a pilot program — he wants to end 12- and 16-hour shifts now for all officers.

Inch said it would be “exceptionally challenging to do an entire system in one year.”

What about programs for inmates?At a meeting in September, Brandes told Inch he also wants to see more programming for inmates so they have less idle time.

“You’re providing only 6% of the inmates any type of programming,’’ he said. “That means this is an organization that is not focused on rehabilitation, it is simply warehousing.”

But Brandes, who has long advocated for more prisons resources, put the blame directly on his colleagues who have resisted annual calls to steer more of the budget into prisons.

“The Legislature must have the courage to do the right thing and fund this entity at the correct levels,’’ he said. “We are frankly overstuffed with inmates and underfunded and under guarded, and this has become a pervasive issue that is department wide.”

“The simple truth is, without significant resources coming into this department over and above what you’ve requested, I don’t know that the trends will not stay the same or continue to get worse,’’ he said.

Miami Dade College is hosting classes behind bars. Inmates get the best grades.

In an op-ed written in December 2018, in the right-wing news and opinion website The Daily Caller, Inch spelled out his view of prison, which serves as a counterpoint to the viewpoint of many conservatives. He forcefully rejects the notion that “the threat of imprisonment serves as a deterrence to future crime” by saying he is “unaware of any research to support this position.”

“Retribution and incapacitation is just, and rehabilitation and restoration is an expression of mercy,’’ he wrote, before DeSantis appointed him to the job. “I call on those who focus on the first, at the exclusion of the second, to search your heart for mercy. I call on those that focus on the second, to remember the cost of crime to society and victims, and temper your advocacy in light of these facts.”

Meanwhile, Inch is asking each of the state’s 50 wardens to read the “The Devil’s Butcher Shop” and come ready to discuss any parallels they see in their facilities at a meeting with all wardens.

“They have to be prepared to discuss their facility in light of this historical example,’’ Inch said. “It’s hard to spiritually describe when humanity leaves. But certainly that happened there.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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