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Florida Wrestles With Prison Conditions, Including Emotional Trauma On Guards

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JUSTIN BRIGHT/FRESH TAKE FLORIDA
Janice Spears looks on in anguish as she listens to Rep. Dianne Hart speak of the plight of Florida's criminal justice system during a protest at Lowell Correctional Institute on Sunday afternoon, January 23, 2020. JUSTIN BRIGHT/FRESH TAKE FLORIDA

Janice Spears spent her last shift as a correctional officer in the prison chapel.

She knows it was 2015 but says symptoms of what she described as post-traumatic stress disorder makes it hard to remember the time or day. She describes the end of her career working at Lowell Correctional Institution, Florida’s largest women’s prison, as “a moment of peace, of solace.”

Spears, 49, of Gainesville, Florida, said she remembered reporting an episode of abuse – a guard nearly crushed an inmate’s arm – but the allegation was dismissed, she said. She remembered long shifts of 12 or 16 hours on back-to-back days over two decades as a guard.

ALSO READ: Most Florida Prison Deaths Occur From Natural Causes, Overdoses

“This place, this place is so wrong,” she said.

Difficult experiences as a Florida correctional officer are driving serious problems in the state’s prisons: Florida can’t hire enough guards, can’t keep employed the guards it hires, copes with frequent cases of guards accused of abusing inmates and struggles to accommodate the emotional trauma that guards sometimes say they suffer behind bars.

Prison issues are stirring in Tallahassee: Lawmakers are considering covering treatment for prison guards with PTSD under worker’s compensation insurance. Other proposals would affect internal investigations, sentencing reform and juvenile justice.

In the governor’s office there is mostly silence on the subjects. Gov. Ron DeSantis did not mention the state’s crumbling prisons or understaffed guard populations in his speech outlining his most urgent legislative priorities for the year. He touted the state’s crime rate, which he said was at a nearly 50-year low.

Prospects are unclear whether lawmakers actually will vote to extend worker’s compensation benefits to guards: Neither a Senate bill, SB 816, or a House version, HB 415, have passed a single committee vote yet. Both were introduced by Democrats in the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature. The bills track closely with earlier, successful efforts to extend benefits to first-responders and firefighters in Florida – although those laws require city employers to pay, while prison guards are employed by the state.

The House sponsor, Rep. Amy Mercado, D-Orlando, said correctional officers face physical threats and emotional trauma.

“The entire system needs help,” she said.

ALSO READ: Florida Accused In Class-Action Lawsuit Of Overusing Solitary Confinement In Prisons

A year ago, Florida had more than 2,000 vacancies for prison guards and a turnover rate of nearly 30 percent. The hiring situation was so bad that Florida lowered the minimum age of new guards to 18, and the Corrections Department has been offering hiring bonuses of $1,000 statewide.

Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has also proposed ending 12-hour work shifts and raising salaries.

In Florida, where guards typically work 12-hour shifts, trainee guards earn an average $30,000 and certified guards earn $3,000 more. Applicants must be a U.S. citizen, a high school graduate, and can’t have any felony convictions or misdemeanor convictions involving perjury or false statements. They also must pass a medical exam and hold a valid driver’s license.

The Corrections Department is Florida’s largest state agency with more than 24,000 employees overseeing roughly 96,000 inmates across 144 prisons, annexes and camps statewide.

Another former correctional officer at Lowell, John Meekins, said guards can witness gruesome or graphic violence, he said. He supports extending worker’s compensation benefits to guards.

“That stuff adds up,” he said.

Pay is low for guards, the hours are long and the job requires a thick skin, said Mae Quinn, a visiting University of Florida law professor and former director of the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis.

“Officers are expected to deal with mental health crises when they’re not adequately able,” she said.

Spears said she’s struggled to rebuild her life since leaving and working odd jobs until becoming a caretaker. She wishes financial support for her PTSD would have been around for her pain and medical care.

She said her time as an officer left her feeling agoraphobic, or afraid of situations that can cause one to panic or feel trapped, for two years after leaving. Now, she publicly protests for reform in the Florida prison system with other former officers, inmates and activists.

“You have to rebuild your life,” she said.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at dcassidy@freshtakeflorida.com