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Prison Reform Top Priority For New Corrections Secretary

Florida Department of Corrections

Florida’s new Secretary of Corrections is facing questions from state lawmakers concerning confidence, inmate deaths, and complaints of abuse from officers. The main question appears to center on the agency’s ability to police itself.

Julie Jones was named to the post on January 5. Two weeks later, she met with various legislators on her game plan to restore confidence and ease concerns.

Credit Florida Department of Corrections
Julie Jones

“I’m a very plain-spoken honest person, and we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing in order to get this thing fixed,” said Jones.

Jones, who retired from the Florida Department of Highway Safety last year, agreed with lawmakers that there’s a “culture issue” in Corrections. But she says there’s also a staffing problem. Hundreds of positions were cut from the budget in Gov. Rick Scott’s first term. She’s asking not so much for warm bodies, but for a full budget: $16.5 million for pay raises and to hire an additional 160 new staffers. She wants to hire everyone from corrections officers to vital positions in probation, medical, and education.

Inmate deaths hit an all-time high last year at 346, a 13% increase from 2013. Almost half were medically-related, and 175 deaths remain unresolved. Baker Republican Greg Evers chairs the Senate Corrections Committee.

“We will go to the point that when you go to prison, that you will be given the opportunity to rehabilitate yourself,” said Evers. “And you will come out alive on the other side and not leave the prison in a body bag.”

Evers said he has every confidence in Jones, but little confidence in many of the agency’s prison wardens and field managers.

In a burst of candor rarely heard from a state agency head, Jones says that private contractors have provided inadequate medical care to inmates, allowed infrastructure to degrade, and have cut personnel.

Jones' call for higher funding comes after last month's request by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is seeking another $8.4 million to investigate prison deaths and cases involving excessive force by law enforcement officers.

Other proposals from Jones include: placing some supervisors and officers on different shifts; new use-of-force criteria, more treatment beds for inmates with mental illnesses, and $116 million over five years to upgrade infrastructure.