Amid Some Mixed Reviews, Second Senate Panel Quickly Confirms Prison Chief Jones

Feb 2, 2016

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones speaking during her confirmation hearing at the Senate Criminal Justice Committee Monday.
Credit Florida Channel

The head of the Florida Department of Corrections received unanimous approval during her second Senate confirmation hearing. Her initial hearing occurred in November.

With just seven minutes left in their two hour meeting, members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee breezed through the confirmation hearing for Prison Chief Julie Jones. She’s been in her role for about a year.

Her agency has been under scrutiny for inmate deaths, allegations of abuse by prison guards, and cover ups.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that there are problems at the Department of Corrections and I know your basic goal is to fix some of those things,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth). “But, I have a few concerns that I wanted to ask you about.”

Some solutions have been looking into making some leadership changes—which Clemens further questioned.

“And, the first deals with the hiring of the new regional directors, which are seemingly really the old regional directors. We moved the director from Region 1 to Region 2. We moved the director from Region 2 to Region 1. We have a regional warden going from Region 2 to Region 3, and a warden from Suwannee going to direct Region 4. And, my concern about that is I think there’s some systemic issues in the department that need to be fixed and it seems like we’re just reappointing all the directors, with one exception. Can you speak to that?”

And, while Jones acknowledged the internal hires, she says she tried to look for outside people.

“Senator, we interviewed multiple people outside the agency, and they were either not qualified or approached for a job—they declined the job because there was a better job offer elsewhere,” she replied. “So, we did look outside the agency and interviewed multiple people outside the agency, before I made the selections internally.”

And, she adds she also looked at a number of other factors.

“And I weighed a lot of information, based on what I know about the individual, their work record, my expectation for my employees, and what I believe that they were going to do for the Department through my leadership, and having a solid basis of knowledge for the department was also key and state government and the desires of this committee and others, as opposed to bringing in someone in totally cold,” Jones added.

But, Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) says she applauds Jones’ leadership moves. Gibson adds while she understands Clemens’ position, she feels this is a step in the right direction.

“I wanted to see movement in terms of separating some folks from the folks that they have supervised over the years or worked with over the years because I believe that that could help with the culture. So, in terms of reassigning some of those regional directors, I think they’re called, I see that as more as a positive than not, and I do believe that it is a little bit difficult to engage people to want to come inside of an institution that doesn’t really have a good reputation right now.”

Fixing understaffing levels is among Jones’ priorities. She’s also in the process of moving correctional officers from 12-hour shifts to 8-hour shifts—which Gibson likes as well.

“Eight hour shifts gives more people opportunities to be off and be with their families and I think that would be a great improvement,” added Gibson. “I feel like we’re kind of going in slow motion though and I hope that the shift change will help with the culture too. And, if you find that it doesn’t help, that you will move not just those regional directors around, but some of the correctional staff as well—not pointing any fingers at anyone—but I think there’s still needs to be some systemic changes that need to be made to get us to where they need to be.”

And, Jones says she’ll keep those concerns in mind.

In the last few seconds of the committee, one correctional officer tried to address lawmakers about what she called the “ticking time bombs” within the department. But, there was no time.

So, with the backing of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association as well as the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, all five members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted to confirm her.

According to Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker)—the panel’s chair—Jones’ ultimate confirmation hearing will be in the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. And, he agreed to speak one-on-one with the correctional officer, after the meeting to hear her concerns.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.