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Life in lawless Florida prison may be crueler than a needle

The Florida State Prison correctional institution, also known as Raiford Prison, located in Raiford, FL. 

By Fred Grimm - South Florida Sun Sentinel

Sep 10, 2022

If jurors reject the death penalty for Parkland killer Nikolas Cruz, don’t call their decision merciful. Life in a Florida prison is no kind of mercy.

Consigning a 24-year-old to spend five decades or so (if he’s lucky) in the custody of an underfunded, understaffed, scandal-plagued Florida Department of Corrections may be crueler than lethal injection.

The perpetual crisis enveloping DOT has become so acute that state officials have summoned the Florida National Guards. Civilian soldiers, whose usual missions come in the wake of natural disasters, will be contending with the decidedly unnatural disaster afflicting the nation’s third largest state penal system

Hopefully, the troops can stave off anarchy long enough for DOC to hire new corrections officers to fill 5,840 vacancies — a crippling number — in the prison guard workforce.

Good luck with that. State prisons compete with corporations similarly desperate for workers. Except the DOT’s prospective hires must contemplate a career stuck in the same miserable, dangerous, demoralizing environment endured by convicts.

The Department of Corrections has been hemorrhaging guards since 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott, in a misbegotten scheme to privatize the prison system, savaged the DOC budget, eliminated 3,700 prison jobs and instituted 12-hour shifts for corrections officers.

The fiscally desiccated penal system, with 82,000 prisoners in lock-up, has been slowly descending into chaos. In 2019, then-DOC Secretary Mark Inch warned legislators that since Rick Scott’s budget cuts, inmate-on-inmate assaults had risen 67%, inmate attacks on guards had increased by 46%, prison gang participation had expanded 141%, and guards’ use of force incidents were up 54%. The average guard had less than a single year’s experience.

Such candor probably cost Secretary Inch his job.

His successor, Ricky Dixon, DOC’s the sixth secretary since 2011, sounded equally pessimistic last year, telling legislators that cellblock guards “have no one to back them up. They’re alone and they’re at the mercy of other inmates — not staff, but other inmates — to come to the rescue should other inmates intend to cause them harm.”

Guards aren’t just the victims. Florida newspapers have uncovered incidents of guard brutality, including gang-beatings of inmates. Videos shot by prisoners with contraband cellphones captured startling guard violence. Last year, the Associated Press identified several prison guards as avowed white supremacists. And guards have been implicated in schemes to smuggle in phones and drugs to sell to prisoners.

A 2021 report by the U.S. Department of Justice documented a “long history” of guards raping, sodomizing and extorting inmates for sex at the state women’s prison in Marion County.

Can a corrections officer’s annual pay of $38,750, even with a $3,000 hiring bonus, be enough to lure 5,900 Floridians into such a dystopian workplace?

Along with the rape, violence, drugs, racism and gang infestation, Florida prisons are downright unhealthy. A 2021 study by the UCLA’s Behind Bars project found that life expectancy among Florida state prisoners declined by more than four years during the pandemic (compared to a one-year decrease for the outside population). COVID seemed to overwhelm medical services for prisoners already suffering from chronic health problems.

Then there’s the heat, no small consideration given that only 19 of Florida’s 50 major penal facilities are air-conditioned.

Florida’s prisons have always been hot houses, but climate change is creating unbearable conditions. A Climate Central study released in July warned that the number of life-threatening extreme-heat days (in which combined temperature and humidity readings are equivalent to 100-plus degrees) have increased to 25 days a year in Florida. By 2050, when Cruz would be 52, climate scientists say Florida will be suffering 130 extreme-heat days a year.

Excessive heat tends to exacerbate cellblock violence. A study published in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that stifling heat and humidity led to an 18% spike in violent incidents among inmates caged in Mississippi’s unairconditioned prison wards, which are no hotter than Florida’s pens.

Cruz might survive longer in the relative safety of an isolated cell on death row, where the condemned can stretch out their appeals for 20 years or more. Given his notoriety, the Parkland killer might not last that long among the general prison population on a cellblock woefully short of guards.

Child killers aren’t much appreciated by their fellow prisoners. (Consider Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer beaten to death in a Wisconsin prison in 1994, two years into a life sentence.)

Whatever the jury decides in the Cruz case, execution or life in a Florida lock-up, it won’t be mercy.