A panel of Florida lawmakers grilled the head of Florida’s troubled prison system, before unanimously confirming her during a Senate hearing Thursday.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones is the fourth person Governor Rick Scott has appointed to lead the prison agency in about as many years.
“It’s an honor and a privilege. I want to thank Governor Rick Scott for his trust in me by appointing me to this position. I look forward to working with each one of you as I go forward bringing real change to the department to ensure safety and security to our inmates and our employees. And, so with that, I’m here to answer questions and would ask for your favorable confirmation.”
Jones—who made those remarks at the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Budget Subcommittee Thursday—has been tasked with taking over an agency plagued by allegations of inmate abuse by prison guards, unnatural inmate deaths, and cover ups.
Both the House and Senate are putting together their prison reform packages—the Senate passed its version Wednesday. It includes an oversight board that can conduct its own investigations into correctional facilities. That’s not included in the House proposal.
Republican lawmakers in the House have said it’s another layer of bureaucracy, but Sen. Darren Soto (D-Orlando) wanted Secretary Jones’ input.
“What’s your opinion on the commission and your ability to work with such a commission, if it were passed into law,” asked Soto.
“I think anything the legislature wishes to ask the department to do, we will do,” replied Jones.
Having said that, she says she has concerns.
“Is the right people are put on the committee,” continued Jones. “I still have the authority to do my job, not just the responsibility. That’s very important! And, it be value driven, it focuses on best management practices, things that we can do to better the department to move forward, that it should not delve in specific IG [Inspector General] type things and potentially interfere with policeman bill of rights and those issues.”
Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) also wanted the Secretary to weigh in on comments she made to NPR, referring to people who have testified in the Senate and criticized the department’s handling of investigations as “as group of disgruntled employees that do not have the best interest of the department at heart.”
“These criticisms were aimed at your Inspector General, but we’ve seen a series of incidences: the scalding death, the gassing deaths, in which your Inspector General took no action against staff,” said Joyner. “And, of course, there were accusations of cover-ups. So, I’d like to know what steps do you intend to take to restore integrity in the office and credibility for the actions of your Inspector General Jeff Beasley?”
And, Thursday, Jones said while she’s already taking steps to ensuring supervisors and employees start policing each other, she stands by those comments. She adds the people speaking against DOC are suing the prison agency and are not representative of those who work for the Inspector General.
“I do not agree with the majority of the testimony that was done in Senator [Greg] Evers’ committee,” answered Jones. “And, having said that, short of firing Mr. Beasley for no cause, I don’t know how to answer your question. The situations that have been discussed in open testimony happened years ago. Everything that I know of Mr. Beasley and how he has handled these cases has been spot on, and he has not mishandled anything to my knowledge.”
Aside from talking about controversial topics, Jones also touched on areas she wants to highlight moving forward—including an expansion of inmate-focused programs through technological advances.
That includes allowing video conferencing for inmates and their families and providing electronic grievances processes for inmates that can’t be intercepted by the department. She also told the committee she’s looking into ways to allow certain non-violent offenders a chance to serve time in county jails.
And, as the confirmation hearing winded down, the panel’s chair Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart) put the Secretary as well as other members on the panel “on notice” regarding future budgets that include the Department of Corrections.
“I don’t plan to do this again next year where the entire focus and all the new money is on the Department of Corrections,” said Negron. “I want to get back to our state attorneys, our public defenders, our Supreme Court, our District Courts of Appeal, our trial courts, because it isn’t fair to them. It’s kind of like having one student in the classroom who’s causing all the problems, and then the rest of the students who are all trying to learn and trying to get a good grade in the course are adversely affected.”
But, some members of the panel say Florida’s prison agency—the biggest agency under that budget committee’s purview—will have expenses that need to be taken care of.
And, the Senate panel voted to confirm Jones Thursday.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.