Employment at Gulf Correctional is on the upswing after pay raises provided by the state legislature went into effect this year.
Warden Scott Payne said the effect on overall employee morale has been significant.
“It’s like yesterday, when our field training officer was walking the compound with six or seven of our new recruits,” Payne said in an interview on August 4. “Someone mentioned it to me. They said ‘that’s the first time we’ve seen that many (new recruits) walking the compound at one time.’”
The warden said there is a long way to go before the prison is able to fill all of their vacancies. But still, it had been a while since Gulf C.I. had a growing staff, and he was glad to see the change.
“When I started in 1993, it was highly competitive,” Payne said. “…I came up through the classification program side of it. There were 120 applications for that position. And now, you advertise that same position 29 years later, and you might get eight people, 10 people.”
The 2022 budget adopted by the Florida Legislature increased the starting salary for correctional officers to $41,600, effective July 1.
Correctional officer salaries were increased to $38,750 at the beginning of the year, a 16 percent increase from 2021. The Department of Corrections also implemented signing bonuses for correctional officers of up to $5,000.
This is still less than the median household income in Gulf County, which is about $50,000. But Payne said the pay increases were a large step in the right direction.
“The pay was kind of insignificant (before), and we went several years where we didn’t get pay raises,” he said. “But the stars aligned, so to speak, and we got very significant pay raises.”
The effects on Gulf Correctional’s hiring have been immediate, Payne said.
Between January and May, the correctional institution was able to hire only 5 employees. They lost 14 in the same period. But since May, the institution has brought on 22 new staff members, losing only 3.
Payne said that the higher pay wasn’t the only factor contributing to increased staffing at Gulf Correctional. The prison is also participating in a sort of “pilot program,” which is aimed at greatly reducing the amount of time potential employees spend going through the hiring process, he said.
“If you came in wanting to be a correctional officer, we could hire you within a week and not put you in uniform,” said Payne. “But it’s contingent upon you passing the FBAT test, drug test and physical.”
Only a few institutions around the state are allowed to hire this way at this time.
The prison’s increased hiring is a positive sign for the region, according to Jim McKight, the director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition.
“From a county perspective, we would love to see them fill all of their vacancies because then they would have a chance to reopen the (Forestry) Camp,” said McKnight. “It’s a big deal for our county if they can get their staffing up.”
Staffing shortages have also contributed to the closure of many prisons in Northwest Florida, where facilities, including the Gulf Correctional Institution, sustained copious amounts of damage during Hurricane Michael and had to reduce both inmate populations and staff.
In Gulf County, which houses one of the state’s largest correctional facilities, the prison was almost shut down entirely.
County commissioners pleaded with state lawmakers in April, 2021 to keep one of three correctional facilities operational, citing the significance the facility had as the county’s largest employer. But only the main prison complex remained open, and Gulf Correctional’s Annex and Forestry Camp remain indefinitely closed.
But While Payne agreed that reopening the annex and work camp was possible if staffing continued to increase, he said with current staffing numbers, that goal was still a long way off.
“We’re still a pretty good distance down the road, and right now we’re going to concentrate on the main unit,” he said.
In the meantime, Gulf C.I. plans to continue pushing advertising material through the community, spreading the word about available opportunities, the competitive benefits package offered with state employment and the resurgence of the close-knit atmosphere between staff at the prison.
“This is a very tough position. It’s a stressful position. And we’re family here,” Payne said. “That’s the way we are, we’re a community and we’re a family, and that’s what (Florida) Secretary (of Corrections Ricky) Dixon is trying to bring back to this agency.”
For more information about available positions or to apply for a job at Gulf Correctional Institution, visit http://www.fldcjobs.com/.