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Lawmakers Turn Down Prison Staffing Request

Prison corridor with inmates in distance
Associated Press
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A deal on the state's public-safety budget that lawmakers reached late Friday would not give the Department of Corrections the 734 additional positions that the agency says are necessary to make Florida's prisons more secure.

The new jobs were part of an effort by the department to have corrections officers work eight-hour shifts instead of 12-hour shifts. The department has been reeling from a series of reports about issues such as contraband smuggling and abuse of inmates.

Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, who took over the troubled agency last year, requested the positions after three separate audits blamed prison problems, including contraband such as cell phones, on inadequate and overworked staff.

The agency recently launched a lobbying effort, including distributing "734" stickers, to try to convince the Legislature to approve the staffing levels. Earlier this week, on Twitter, Jones tried to stress the urgency of the situation.

"This is an officer and inmate safety issue," she tweeted at a reporter. "The Department doesn't just want 734 ... we need it."

But Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican leading the budget negotiations, said legislative staff members believe the agency has enough to do in handling the fallout of a health-care contracting issue.

"Our staff felt that the department pretty much had its hands full dealing with the health-care issues that it needed to deal with and that this was probably more than they could swallow at the current time," Lee said.

He also noted that the agency already has a large number of open positions that could be filled.

In addition to finishing work on the criminal and civil justice portion of the budget, which also covers the courts system, Lee and House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran struck an agreement on funding for transportation and economic development.

A $6 million film-incentive program that the Senate wanted was dropped from the final deal. Lawmakers also agreed to a provision allowing law-enforcement officers to be assigned to protect Cabinet members.

"We've all been aware that the attorney general's had some serious issues over these last few years but in looking at it and looking at the reform, it was for all the Cabinet officers," said Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes. "If they need it and the circumstances necessitate it, then obviously we want to make sure that that's taken care of."

He said lawmakers would look for ways during the last week of the legislative session to make the provision a permanent part of state law; the budget language would expire after a year.

Lee and Corcoran are still working on the spending plan for education, as well as some administrative portions of the budget. The talks have to be completed by Tuesday for the legislative session to end on Friday, as scheduled, because lawmakers are required to have 72 hours to review the budget before voting on it.