TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida National Guard is getting deployed to state prisons.
Lawmakers on the Joint Budget Commission approved Friday afternoon a more than $31 million request from the governor to use guardsmen for staff support at correctional facilities across the state.
Gov. Ron DeSantis activated the Guard with an executive order shortly after.
State prisons have long been plagued with safety concerns, stressful work environments and low pay. It's resulted in a corrections officer staff shortage across the state. Current estimates from the DOC show a 24.1% vacancy rate.
While new programs boosting pay are helping, during the meeting officials said the incentives were not yet enough. The proposed activation period would last up to nine months to give facilities more time to fill positions.
"We think, as we continue to hire and reduce the stress on the compounds, the existing officers are going to want to stay because they're not going to work that amount of overtime they're currently working," said DOC Chief Financial Officer Mark Tallent. "They’re going to have a better family life, be able to get out of the institution more. We definitely think we're trending in the right direction."
The guardsmen will operate in paid volunteer positions and aren't expected to have any direct supervision of inmates. Instead, the plan calls for "temporary relief to help support current staff and provide the FDC additional time and resources to hire and train new staff…"
Approval was nearly certain as both the GOP majority and governor backed the idea. Even so, some Democrats had concerns.
"Florida has ignored this agency and ignored this problem, and underfunded this agency for years," House Minority Leader-Designate Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said Friday morning. "Now, it looks like the governor wants to activate the Florida National Guard, which will take people away from their homes, their families, and their jobs."
Worries included the stretching of state resources during a potential disaster, disruption to families for months, and their biggest criticism— it was a high-cost band-aid for a chronic issue.
"We should look at this as an impetus to look forward for the next go around — we looked at the budget beforehand," Rep. Nicholas Duran, D-Miami, said. "We are in healthy shape. There truly are some ideas and opportunities for us to fix this issue."
Leaders with the Florida National Guard tried to ease some of those anxieties. Officials told the commission that volunteers were lined up to meet prison needs without the requirement of direct orders. Also, that activation wouldn't compromise emergency readiness.
The GOP and most Democrats ended up supporting the idea, Duran included. Two voted against the funding allotment, Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, and Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee.