Florida seeking to recruit and retain prison employees


Published: Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE — James McDonough has been head of Florida's Department of Corrections for almost a year and says he has figured out why people will work inside state prisons.

Facts

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· For more information about "A Career of Courage" go to www.fldocjobs.com or call (866) JOB-FDOC.

"We do something that very few people could do and it's not something you do for the money," McDonough said. "You want more than money. You want pride of service. You want to identify with the profession. It's really a positive thing to be able to say that you are part of a very honorable profession, a very meaningful profession.

"In recent years it went astray," he added.

James Crosby, the former head of the prison system, is awaiting sentencing in April after pleading guilty to accepting $130,000 in kickbacks. Several former officers were convicted of participating in a steroid ring. Investigations are continuing into allegations of mismanagement and malfeasance.

This week, the prison system launched a $400,000 campaign to persuade Floridians to consider applying for a prison job as well as to help retain current employees.

"It's one of the central challenges of the department — to build a professional corps, a cadre that is committed not just for the short period of time but for a long period of time to the profession," McDonough said.

Statewide, about one in four officers is a trainee, which means thay have not been certified as a correctional officer. And, of those trainees, one in four does not last a year as a prison employee.

Of the trainees who do become certified officers, the average tenure is slightly more than three years and only about one year in South Florida. The high turnover of entry level workers "means we have a lot of inexperienced people that we have to bring in all the time and keep replacing," McDonough said. Each time an entry level employees must be replaced, it costs the department about $18,000 to get another peson to the point where they can be certified.

Once an employee is certified, department records show that correctional officers statewide serve an average of 7.8 years. At the end of 2006, 40 percent of the correctional officers working in prisons in North Florida had less than three years of experience. About 50 percent of the Central Florida prison staffs had less than three years of experience and about two-thirds of the staffs in South Florida prisons had less than three years of experience.

"It's not a bad thing to have turnover," said department spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff. "It's not a bad thing for people to leave if they are not suited for the job, but every business or enterprise knows the value of experience, and experience is where we are thin in some areas."

Rackleff said a continuing problem with retaining officers near large metropolitan areas is that county jails often pay several thousand dollars a year more for entry-level officers, and some jails also offer bigger benefit packages. Florida pays its starting officers just over $30,000 a year with a benefit package worth another $15,000 a year, not including a college tuition benefit.

"What we can offer are working conditions that are better and more professional," Rackleff said. "We don't have the constantly revolving door of prisoners. Our officers get to know the inmates they supervise and they get to know how to work effectively with them. Also, our inmates are not crowded together into cells as they are in county jails."

To make that pitch to potential employees and to encourage current employees to stay, the department's "A Career of Courage" campaign is being launched this week in conjunction with the American Correctional Association conference being held in Tampa.

Karen Voyles can be reached at 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com

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