The warden from Gulf Correctional Institution was the bearer of bad news Tuesday morning to the board of county commissioners.
William “Scott” Payne said the county should prepare for a temporary suspension of all inmate work squads supervised by Department of Corrections personnel, part of a statewide clampdown within an agency beset by critical staffing shortages.
“We’re in an emergency, we’re having to take drastic measures,” he said. “But hopefully its only temporary. (Florida Department of Corrections) Secretary (Mark) Inch has been fighting diligently with the legislature to get additional funding."
According to a report by the Tampa Bay Times, Inch has been working to sell lawmakers on a plan to spend more than $26 million to shorten prison guards’ regular daily work shifts.
Inch is asking for a change from 12-hour to 8.5-hour shifts, something already in effect at roughly a third of Florida’s state-run prisons. This is intended to diminish high turnover, recruit new employees and ensure critical posts are manned.
“It’s a system in crisis,” the prisons chief told a Senate budget panel earlier this month.
Payne said the county should brace for the suspension of supervised work squads, but did not specify when such changes would be made. “This is not a final, this is based on my knowledge,” he said. “There is not a date when this is going to happen but it is coming.
“We got an email that they want us to reach out to all the county officials and tell them what the plan is,” the warden said.
He said work squad officers would be supplemented into other positions. He said GCI has begun requiring correctional officers give up a couple of their off days to handle staffing shortfalls.
“Night shifts are falling under critical and necessary,” Payne said. “Sometimes we’re seven or eight down, sometimes 12, depending on the COVID illness. We’re scrambling to meet the necessary staffing.”
Commissioner Phillip McCroan voiced the most displeasure at Payne’s announcement, and said he was angered to see inmate work crews handling assignments in Bay County, while Gulf was without.
“That chaps me really bad,” he said. “It always winds up screwing the local counties.”
County Administrator Michael Hammond said “we want to be first in priority,” noting that the county had secured property near Wewahitchka to put in the prison.
“We bought property, and we were promised work crews,” he said. “Now we’re the last in line. It does seem extremely unfair that the state will take paid out-of-county work crews.
“Pass our disgruntlement up the ladder,” Hammond said.
Payne, who was born and raised in Jackson County, said he knows the importance of the work squads. But, he continued, Bay County is under contract where they pay $56,000 apiece for three supervisors.
“They’re paying almost $170,000 a year,” he said. “We have to, by contract, honor those. Every work camp in the state is going through this. We’re being told we must honor contract work squads. We have to keep those squads filled; they’re paying.
“I’m with you now,” Payne said. “I’m just explaining it to the board that the agreement between the county and Gulf CI is an agreement, it can be cancelled or temporarily suspended at any time at both parties’ discretion.
“If I was sitting in your guys’ shoes, I’d be upset too,” he said. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
Commissioner Ward McDaniel recalled the county “lost a lot of folks who never came back (and) we got the short end of the stick” when the annex was closed.
“Gulf County got screwed to help some of these other places,” he said. “We don’t like it.”
Payne disputed the numbers, saying that “99 percent came back” to Gulf CI. “There are less than five that remained at the facilities they went to,” he said.
But, the warden went on to say, the picture is far from rosy when it comes to personnel.
“I’m about to lose four to the federal prison in Marianna,” he said. “One lives in Bay County and he’s going to drive an hour. In two years he’ll make $9,000 more than he would with us
“Right now we’re in unprecedented times,” said Payne, noting that “concern for the staff and protection of the inmate population” are officials’ paramount concerns.
“When the agency is pushed to open up the receiving of county inmates sentenced to state prison, that camp is going to open up,” he said. “The secretary has closed 120 dorms statewide, and we have two dorms closed at the main unit. I am forced to consolidate into two dorms at the forestry camp to help with staffing.”
Payne said the secretary is aware that “when you release those inmates from county jail, our population is going to go back and staffing levels will be worse than what it is now. This will create a long suspension of correctional officer supervised squads.
“It’s bad guys, it really is,” he said. “In my 28 and one-half years I have never seen it this bad, and it’s at every institution across the state.”
McDaniel pressed for numbers as to how many work crew inmates would be available to Gulf County, but the warden did not offer hard numbers.
“That I can’t answer,” he said.
He then went into considerable detail into the number of inmates and their classifications that might be available. He said there are 127 inmates at the Gulf Forestry Camp in White City, of which 59 are medium custody, meaning they cannot go outside.
“We have 59 minimum custody who can go out the gate, and another eight, there are 67,” he said.
He then went into the fine points of which inmates might be available to be on a work crew. “Twenty-two of the 59 we won’t even consider because we think they’re a threat to the public to be out in a work squad,” Payne said.
He said at the Gulf CI in Wewahitchka, there are about 85 in minimum custody, with some assigned to cut grass at the 346 acres at the main unit.
Close to half, about 40, are assigned outside, noting that 17 others are not medically cleared for outside assignments, nine are involved in programs in which it is strongly discouraged to remove them from, two are ineligible due to contraband, two are ineligible because a violation has delayed their release date, and 13 are in confinement.
“We found four cell phones last week at the forestry camp,” Payne said.
McDaniel said he has witnessed examples where a county employee is watching but one inmate worker. “We can’t afford to have one watching one,” he said. “We need one watching over six. Taxpayers can’t afford that.”
The warden was sympathetic. “I wish I could make a telephone call and say give me 75,” he said. “I have 49 other wardens in the state that are needing the same thing.
“We got to get our legislators to understand we have been shortchanged 12 to 15 years and it’s showing and it’s finally reared its ugly head in these rural communities.” Payne said, noting that when he came to Gulf there were 85 vacancies, and that in the year prior to the hurricane the vacancy rate was 125.
“The answer lies in your legislative body,” he said.
The following is a summary of some of what Gulf CI offers its inmates.
Substance Abuse Programs
Institutional Betterment Programs
Active and Passive Sports
This article originally appeared on The Star: Suspension looms for inmate work crews