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Florida's Crumbling Prisons: The Costly Debate Surrounding Air-Conditioning

CEO Khai Intela
Guard towers at Florida State Prison in Raiford, Fla. Florida's prison system, known as the nation's third-largest, is in dire need of maintenance and modernization. To address these issues, consultants have estimated that taxpayers will...

Guard towers at Florida State Prison in Raiford, Fla. Guard towers at Florida State Prison in Raiford, Fla.

Florida's prison system, known as the nation's third-largest, is in dire need of maintenance and modernization. To address these issues, consultants have estimated that taxpayers will have to contribute between $6.3 billion and $11.9 billion over the next two decades. However, a significant portion of this budget is allocated towards installing air-conditioning across the 85,000-inmate system, which has sparked a debate among lawmakers.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Civil and Criminal Justice recently reviewed this proposed expenditure, with Senator Jonathan Martin questioning the necessity of installing air-conditioning. He suggested that the allocated funds could be better utilized to improve the salaries and benefits of correctional officers, ultimately impacting employee retention.

One staggering statistic revealed during the review is that 75% of state prison housing in Florida lacks air-conditioning. While the consultants from KPMG, the firm hired by the Florida Department of Corrections, acknowledged that staff turnover is high, they cautioned against assuming that increasing pay alone would improve retention without the addition of air-conditioning.

Despite the potential benefits of addressing the lack of air-conditioning, concerns have been raised about the financial impact and the feasibility of such an undertaking. With 515 housing units in Florida's prison system still lacking adequate cooling, the consultants emphasized that providing air-conditioning would reduce the risk of class-action lawsuits from inmates confined without proper cooling.

Denise Rock, executive director of Florida Cares Charity Corp., an advocacy group for inmates, previously described the conditions inside Florida prisons as "unlivable." The aging prison system has long grappled with various issues, including gang-related violence, increasing inmate deaths, rising healthcare costs, and difficulties in hiring and retaining correctional officers.

KPMG has proposed three potential paths to improve the prison system, referred to as "modernize," "manage," and "mitigate." The "modernize" approach would cost $11.9 billion and involve constructing three new prisons, two inmate hospitals, closing four existing prisons, and expanding capacity across the system. The "manage" option, costing $9 billion, includes building two new prisons and hospitals, closing three prisons, and adding more beds to current facilities. Lastly, the "mitigate" plan requires a $6.3 billion investment, entailing the construction of one new prison and two hospitals, without closing any existing facilities.

As lawmakers prepare for next year's legislative session in January, the prison management plan is expected to be a priority. However, there are calls from advocates like Jackie Dunn of the nonprofit Data4Change for a comprehensive evaluation of the current inmate population before embarking on an expensive expansion. Dunn suggests exploring alternatives for older inmates who may be eligible for release or corrections programs outside of prison, without posing a threat to the community.

In the midst of this debate, the question of air-conditioning remains at the forefront. While acknowledging the need for humane treatment, some argue that providing the luxuries of the outside world might not be necessary. Nevertheless, the discussion regarding the future of Florida's crumbling prisons and the well-being of its inmates continues.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected], or on X at @JKennedyReport.

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